In this debut novel, a trio of black teenagers grapples with racial prejudice while a serial killer preys on black children in Atlanta.
Teens Santos, Luq, and Dion spend much of their days together “wilding out,” trying to pass the time and hustle up some cash. All three of them are perennially strapped for money—Dion, who dresses up like a girl and refers to himself as a lady, turns tricks with men for meager payouts. Santos makes regular visits to a clinic to participate in an experimental initiative that’s eerily similar to the infamous Tuskegee Experiment, darkly and poignantly depicted by Ambrose. At one point, Santos is reduced to fighting in a “faggot in a box,” a brawling match that pits one gay fighter against another, a debasement that fetches him an embarrassing $300 prize. Luq lives in a mostly white suburb—he’s one of seven black students at a high school of 435—and plans to attend the Pittsburgh School of Design after he graduates. Unlike Santos and Dion, he’s deeply conflicted about his sexual identity and a virgin, though he suffers sexual assault at the hands of men more than once in the story. All three wrestle with the burden of racial prejudice, are routinely treated with contemptuous suspicion by the police, and all but dismissed when they turn to officers for help. In his absorbing book, Ambrose hauntingly creates an atmosphere of dread and predation by continually referring to the serial murder of black children in Atlanta in the late 1970s and early ’80s, an epidemic of violent crime that reinforced for many the vulnerability of black communities. This isn’t a plot-driven novel, but the characters are richly drawn and the themes intelligently evoked. The writing swings between a poetically lyrical narrative and grittily authentic dialogue. An older black man, Silas, who still seethes with anger over his unwitting participation in the Tuskegee Experiment, affectingly describes the teens’ collective predicament: “The cops aren’t here to protect you. They here to protect the world FROM you. ‘Cause they convinced the world that we all criminals; ain’t got no value.”
A mesmerizing tale of racial inequality and sexual discovery.