In Copeland’s debut novel, a very young boy is pulled into a world of gangs, drugs, and violence in 1980s Detroit.
It’s narrator Joshua Barnes’ 10th birthday in 1985. Hours after he wakes up, his babysitter’s teenage daughters force alcohol on him and make unsolicited sexual advances; later, his father, Oliver, arranges for him to have an encounter with a drug-addled prostitute. It’s also revealed that his “evil, selfish-ass mother” subjected him to years of abuse and neglect, and he’s full of angry resentment. When his father is later found dead, Josh is arrested for his murder, and despite his claims of innocence (and his age), he’s tried as an adult and sentenced to nearly six years in prison. When he’s finally released, he’s recruited by his Uncle Earl—a man with “mob connections” who’s known on the street as “Earl Shining Diamond”—to join his criminal enterprise, which includes gambling, drugs, and prostitution. Josh is horrified to learn that one of the babysitters’ daughters, Gina, is one of Earl’s sex workers; he’s committed to getting her out of the game, despite her own reluctance and the danger it would pose to both of them. After his older brother, James, is shot, he’s pulled deeper into the violent underworld. Copeland’s tale is an unsettlingly plausible one and offers a bracingly macabre picture of urban decay. His unflinching prose and dialogue skillfully show how Josh is caught in a web of hopelessness, and it depicts a city that’s been ground down by years of unabated blight. However, the novel’s unrelenting slang and effusive vulgarity can become exhausting; at one point, for example, Josh overhears a sex worker, whom he only calls “some bitch,” saying, “You got a fucking J shaped dick, you won’t be putting that in me. Nigga wrong!” Also, although the story is largely told from Josh’s first-person perspective, the narrative sometimes abruptly and confusingly shifts into third-person.
An uneven but often compelling story of troubled youth.