Clearly a fan of Richard Price, in Dodgers
author Bill Beverly follows his young protagonist, East, from the streets of LA to the unfamiliar terrain of white America in Nevada, Colorado, Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin on a cross-country mission with three others for a drug lord. Just fifteen, East leads a house crew in The Boxes (the inner-city name for an area defined by asphalt and decaying buildings, where addicts score), a network of such boys serving as lookouts to send cell phone warnings when authorities approach. East is proud of his crew, reliable and efficient, comfortable on the street: “He had never been a child. Not that they had seen.”
There is order and organization in this life, the rituals of the criminal drug network, young men seeking success in the limited world of their experience. When the raid comes to East’s “house”, it is swift and brutal,
Watchers flee, and East is the last to escape as a young black girl, too stubborn and curious to heed East’s warnings and back off, takes a fatal bullet, her eyes gradually growing lifeless: “You thought you had the rhythm, that your pace was the world’s pace. Then someone busted a move.”
This girl’s face will haunt East in the following days, four boys on a mission to kill a stranger at their leader’s request.
Instead of getting called out for his failure to alert the house in time, East finds himself in a private audience with Fin, the head of their particular organization, selected for a special, secret assignment with three others. Stripped of cell phones
and provided new identification and cash, the four boys are given specific instruction to accomplish their assignment, expected to cross state lines without attracting any attention. The riders are East, fifteen;
21-year-old Michael Wilson, a former college student and smooth talker, the putative leader; and Walter, an overweight, tech savvy boy who works from the inside of the organization, creating false identities and documents. The final member is
13-year-old Ty, East’s brother, an unpredictable, volatile boy with the instincts of a killer and a disdain for his older brother. The enmity between the brothers lies heavy on the four during the drive, but it is Michael Wilson, the oldest, who first creates a problem, unable to resist the lure of the open road in Las Vegas. There the gang’s anonymity is compromised by Wilson’s foolish actions in a casino.
As the miles pass, the terrain grows unfamiliar. The boys find it more difficult to keep a low profile or get along with one another, their dark faces a source of curiosity in the rural towns where they buy gas and food. Unexpected challenges arise, escalating the tensions of those bound together on a tedious journey with murder at the end. Ty remains an unknown factor, refusing to participate in conversation. East, the central player in the drama, cannot shed the habits of his work, watching, assessing the blank-faced strangers, weighing options in a task become suddenly more complicated, a simple plan made nearly impossible by problems along the way.
The culture that shapes the characters limits their ability to adapt. Every action they take
is infused with serious consequences, boys institutionalized by poverty and neglect, young minds honed on street violence and its rewards. While East is the most appealing
and Walter a helpful accomplice, Ty is dark, stunted, prone to unthinking violence. The author exposes the ugly underbelly of this subculture, the harrowing journey underlining their instinctive distrust of those who do not look like them, the boys like underage aliens the farther they get from the streets of Los Angeles. The violence in its various forms is swift and final, the drive sprinkled with close encounters with authorities and other criminals who speak only the common language of cash. But while Price so beautifully inhabits his characters, black and white, cops and crooks, Beverly doesn’t quite manage that symbiosis with East, though the protagonist’s survival after the completed mission takes on some interesting shades. It is Ty who haunts Dodgers, pulling his brother deeper into the ugly reality of their short lives. Then again, this is Beverly’s first effort and, like Price, he will doubtless improve with time.