No work of fiction I’ve read in 2016 has earned my enthusiasm, my admiration, and my respect more than Bill Beverly’s debut novel, Dodgers. It’s a beautifully-crafted novel, both in the way that it is written and in the way that it is edited, and the story is as resonant as The Catcher in the Rye or A Separate Peace ever was, and even more so.
Those two earlier, exceptional books are usually regarded as “coming of age” tales, stories wherein a young man or woman reaches the beginnings of adulthood. I’ve no wish to quarrel with the definition, because it remains useful. But I would say that Dodgers goes beyond the limits of the coming-of-age story, and approaches the morally-ambivalent territory we find in John Updike’s short story “A&P,” wherein Sammy realizes as he quits his job at the grocery how cruel the world is likely to be to him hereafter; or the territory Sgt. Nathan Marx finds himself in during World War II after he switches Pvt. Grossbart’s orders back to the Pacific at the end of Phillip Roth’s “Defender of the Faith,” thereby forcing the manipulative Grossbart to accept his fate, even as Marx himself must now accept his own.
Beverly’s lead character, fifteen-year-old East, has already reached manhood in the traditional sense of the term. He is ignorant of many things and inexperienced at many others, but those matters, although we are aware of them, are completely unimportant as the story unfolds. East’s job is to “stand yard,” to maintain the security of a drug house in Los Angeles for those who use it. When someone on East’s crew fails to do his job, the police raid the place, a young girl is killed, and East must now do a kind of penance for his failure: he is assigned the task, along with several others, including his dark-minded younger brother Ty, of traveling cross country to assassinate a judge who could put East’s boss (who happens to be his uncle) away for a long time.
This new, secondary crew is populated by various character types, including the slightly-older Walter and Michael, who believe their task is to get the crew to bond. East will have none of it. His task is to get the job done. The efforts and attitudes of the others, who treat the deadly mission as a kind of college road trip, only complicate matters. And then, there is Ty–younger, more focused than even East himself, and almost impossible for East to reach. They speak very little, but when they do, the exchanges only serve to underscore how different they are. Ty puts that difference succinctly: “You take care of business,” he tells East. “I am business.”
Ty sees the future in a way that East cannot or will not. He envisions a life for himself, not just the moment-to-moment existence East has, although we’re never quite certain what that life might be, as Ty remains largely silent, engrossed in his video games in the back of the van. He is volatile beneath that silence, however. All that readers can know for sure is that whatever his life becomes, it will freely involve guns and bloodshed. When the conflict between the brothers finally erupts in an act of fratricidal violence, the crew is forced to separate in order to survive. East heads back westward, into Ohio, first in a stolen car, and later largely on foot. Tired, hungry, and stinking of the road, East finally pauses in a little community that has a paintball facility run by an old, ill man, and asks for work.
It is at this point that the very air of the novel begins to change, and East can breathe again. He is still wary, and old habits die hard: he still sleeps in boxes, as he did out in California, but he finds satisfaction in cleaning the paintball grounds, handling the money, resolving conflicts in the game, and chatting diffidently with his employer who, wisely, asks very few questions about his young charge, despite being wonderstruck at both East’s ignorance and his diligence.
East does not merely “come of age” during this long, idyllic period. He learns that becoming a man involves more than just allowing the body and the mind to catch up with each other. It also involves learning to do the work that a man must do if he is to be a man, and accepting the self-respect which comes from doing that work. Gaining respect for oneself is the key that opens the door to loving another human being, as East does when the old man finally succumbs to his illness:
“Perry’s breathing was soft and tinkly, glasslike, like a stone rattling in a bottle as it rolled. It tumbled and slowed, tumbled and slowed. It isn’t taking long, East thought. There isn’t much more. Once Perry’s breath nearly ended on the upstroke. Then he let out the air–another roll, another tumble. East put his hand near Perry’s hand, and he leaned and looked again down the barrel of Perry’s eyes. The last thing anyone saw. He supposed he was willing to be it. He put the fingers of his hand atop Perry’s knuckles, and Perry let out a half cough, out of his chest, which was high and white and furred with hairs like bare winter trees on a mountain. The stone in the bottle rolled again. The eyes swam in their clouds, their baths of white. Then the bottle bumped up on something, rolled no farther, and the mountain knew it, too, what the fish knew, that last thing of things.”
We come of age at any age, of course, when we learn at last that death is not a singular event, that love and death are bound to us until the end of our days. Beverly handles these moments of recognition and knowledge with great and often-tender skill throughout the novel. East thinks and reflects upon his life and his circumstances with a maturity no fifteen-year-old could possibly possess, except that he does: the mind can intuit what life is and can be long before we accumulate the daily experience that allows us to verify the truth of what our instincts tell us.
All of the judgment and the maturity East gains in his new life is put to the test as his old life comes back to challenge him. He hits the road again, faced with a mortal choice to make, as he decides which way to go. But this time, the choice is his and his alone to make. The dodging, the bobbing and weaving he’s done with his crews all his life as they’ve stayed one step ahead of the police, has all been done with a tether attached to the drugs and violence that life represents. The dodging and weaving East may choose to do is, on the other hand, the dodging and weaving we all do as we travel the uncertain road we’re on, avoiding the ruts where we can, and trying to keep our eyes on the destination we think we see in the distance ahead.