West African author mines the hardscrabble life of young inner-city thugs.
The setting for this thin, grim novel is the Velt, a brutal, overcrowded ghetto and home to the notorious Drop Dead Gangsters, scores of high school dropouts and deadly dealers peddling narcotics and automatic weapons. Entrenched in the region’s violence and mayhem are Demus, a straight-A student from an affluent family who sells â€œAcapulco gold grass” to fit in with his peers, gold-toothed Baker, the youngest of the trio, nicknamed for his love of sweets, and muscular, street-smart Barnes, who deals in heroin and firearms. Though all three boys are shocked at the tragic shooting death of Little Jimmy, a troubled neighborhood teen wanted in several states on robbery charges, Barnes is the one who must return home to face a mother who is suffering from debilitating â€œblack fever disease.” While a potentially lifesaving drug is on the horizon, his mother desperately needs a liver transplant now and, even more upsetting, she’s uninsured. Barnes springs into dangerous action to save her. Meanwhile, Nikolai, the barely legal son of charitable Ukrainian grocer Viktor, has his sights set on law school while his father’s store continues to be prone to a rash of thefts. The two groups collide when Barnes hatches a plan to rob Viktor’s safe. As expected, incredible carnage follows, including some dire consequences for Viktor and Nikolai, but Thomson amazingly manages to tack on a happy ending after the unbridled bloodshed. The result is a mixed effort. Thomson’s ear for street-slang vernacular is effective in bringing his characters to life and creates a chillingly real backdrop. But a series of recurring flashbacks struggle to give the narrative texture, ultimately robbing the story of momentum and much-needed direction.
Structural flaws can’t undermine the raw power of this stark, timely story about life in the urban underbelly.