Thursday, December 23, 2010
TYRELL by Coe Booth
Name a young adult book with a main character that is homeless.
Still working on that?
Yes, that is a very short list indeed.
It is very good to know then, that we have Coe Booth’s Tyrell. With his dad in prison for selling drugs, 15 year-old Tyrell, his mom, and his seven year-old brother, Troy, lose their apartment and are forced to a homeless shelter. But with the shelter full, they are sent to a roach-infested motel room. Desperate to get his family into a new apartment, Tyrell comes up with a plan to make some quick money. Not wanting to follow his father’s footsteps – and repeatedly refusing to bow to his mom’s pressure to do exactly that and sell drugs to make the family some money – Tyrell’s plan is to host a big party. While the party is basically legal, he needs the help of other men in the ‘hood who make their living illegally.
The real power of this terrific and important book is a glimpse into American society that very few of us who were raised in the suburbs (like me) ever experience or see from the inside. Sure, I live in Chicago and drive through neighborhoods like Tyrell’s, and have done work inside schools in those neighborhoods. But I leave. Tyrell stays. And with Tyrell, Coe Booth has created a complete character whose frustrations leap off the page.
One of the fascinating aspects of the story is the gender relationships. Tyrell has a girlfriend, Novisha, but as the book opens he meets another girl, Jasmine, who is staying at the same motel. While he keeps saying he’s staying faithful to Novisha, he’s also sleeping with Jasmine and justifies it by saying they’re not having sex. Is it fair to call Tyrell sexist? Maybe. But most of girls and women in the story have their own issues when it comes to men. Tyrell’s mom refuses to work and relies on the men in her life – first her husband and then Tyrell – to support the family.
Is Tyrell a good guy stuck in a broken society? Or is he more a bad guy perpetuating a broken society? He’s dropped out of school and seems lost. But looking around his life, he sees little hope, just like the Tyrells all over our country, from the big cities to the dying rural towns. There are no simple answers in Tyrell; the characters and issues are complex, just like they are in life. I recently read and reviewed John Barnes’s outstanding YA novel, Tales of the Madman Underground. These stories take place in different times and widely different settings, but they have much in common. People adrift in our communities, dealing with abuse and neglect and poverty, struggling to survive. This book also reminded me of Nicole LeBlanc’s brilliant and devastating work of non-fiction, Random Family.
Tyrell is really a different kind of coming-of-age story. Slowly, as he weaves his way through the literal and metaphorical web of life in urban America, Tyrell confronts the notion that sometimes family does not come first. Maybe his first priority is to that kid in the mirror.