An up-close journalistic investigation of street families: groups of young adults who live on the seamy outskirts of dozens of American cities and towns.
Denfeld (Kill the Body, The Head Will Fall, 1997, etc.) traces the violent career of James Nelson, a street kid who committed murder at age 16. Paroled after a decade in prison, Nelson headed straight back to the streets of Portland, Ore. Younger teens were attracted to him, and together they formed the Thantos Family. Denfeld shows that street families live according to their own internally coherent codes of conduct: Gender roles are rigid, and if you gossip, flirt, snitch or challenge authority, consequences come swiftly. The author does a remarkable job of humanizing the youth who joined the Thantos Family. The most pathetic of them is Jessica Williams, severely developmentally disabled by Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. In her 20s, Jessica fell in with Nelson, though she continued intermittently to go home to her worried adoptive parents. Eventually, deciding to punish her for various made-up infractions, three members of Jessica’s street family finished off an hours-long beating by knifing her, stomping on her chest, dousing her with lighter fluid and torching her. Many of the minors involved in her murder are, or soon will be, paroled, and the author predicts a bleak future: They “will take their old school credits—and prison experiences—back to the streets, where they will become the street fathers and mothers of new families, just as James Nelson did.” Denfeld excels at character development, but her pacing is weak, providing little of the narrative tension one would expect from a drama that climaxes with a gruesome murder. The Thantos Family’s story also cries out for more careful thinking. Suggesting that street kids are “representative of a society where young adults are encouraged to immerse themselves in fantasy games” is not the same as sustained analysis.
A gripping tale hampered by middling execution.