In Nee-Nee’s debut coming-of age YA novel, the fates of two teenage boys diverge as they deal with the poverty and violence that surrounds them.
The book’s narrator, 14-year-old Brian, lives with his mother and older half brother, Jason, in Slowbomb—a dangerous, low-income housing project where delivery services won’t go and where “There are certain rules that we live by in order to, well, live.” These rules include turning a blind eye to sex-for-drugs transactions in the school hallways and never naming the perpetrators of beatings and killings. “This is what it’s like living in the projects, if you could call this living,” Brian narrates. With Jason’s help, Brian avoids trouble, using the street-smart survival skills that Slowbomb kids learn early, but things become especially difficult when his brutal father is in town. A talented artist, Brian works with little kids in a local sports program, has a girlfriend he loves, and hopes to help his hardworking mom move to a better neighborhood. But, because he feels resigned to spending his future in Slowbomb, he dismisses an opportunity to go to an arts-centered high school in Michigan. “We’re not meant to have more than this. This is as far as people like us go,” says Kenny, who’s on his own self-destructive trajectory. The relationships and daily struggles of the novel’s adult and teen characters ring true, as does the grimness of the world that they inhabit. The author consistently focuses on how life in Slowbomb is shaped by abject poverty. Intermittent descriptions of violence and sex are explicit, but not gratuitous. At another point, Brian movingly remembers when he was a child and “ignorance was bliss”—when he rode in grocery-cart races, played around open fire hydrants in the summer, and sledded and made snowmen in winter. The tragedy that eventually overtakes Brian feels inevitable, and as he considers an action that could have irrevocable consequences, readers will become invested in his journey—and pulling for him to succeed.
A gritty, heartfelt novel with an authentic voice from an author to watch.