Jack Levitt lives a pretty grim existence in the classically-beautiful yet brutally-dreary city of the criminally understated Portland, Oregon. His way of life as a seventeen-year-old draws a direct correlation to the way by which he was conceived and later delivered into this world. Born an orphan after being abandoned by his parents due to their own transgressions, he later finds himself moving from one seedy apartment with drug dealers and violence to another pool hall that happens to be less dangerous, but equally grimy with whisky-sticky and cigarette burned floors. One thing is certain, is that it sure as hell beats the orphanage he recently extricated himself from not too long ago. As much as he is in a perpetual search for attention from others and something else he can’t seem to identify, Jack is primarily interested in looking out for number one; because if not him, then who will? Being a man that can produce great artistry with his hands using other people’s body’s as his canvas, he will find what he is looking for in life whether it be the easy way or the all to familiar hard way.
“But it palled; everything finally got old if you dreamed about it too much ; everything but drinking, and with drinking you could always throw up and start over. Eventually, he passed out.”
Billy “Little Boy Black” Lancing is a gentle young man with a stoicism and a drive for greatness in spite of living in Seattle’s underbelly. This may seem a tad strange being a young African-American male living life in predominantly white residential and commercial areas in the 1940’s. His greatest gift may seem to be that of the intangibles, but give this man a wooden stick, green felted table, fifteen coloured balls and a lone white one and you will find your wallet a little lighter leaving through the door. Unfortunately for Billy in the short-term is that his shame in his “table”manners drifts far from the hustler’s handbook and brings tremendous change which may prove beneficial for the rest of his life.
“His children were beautiful; how could anybody be so cruel? They were so affectionate and full of joy, so eager and innocent; why did somebody have to come along and with one stiff, ugly word, cut the innocence out of them? From the moment they understood that word they would proceed through life half-murdered of their ability to love; the moment their eyes became wary they would cease to be children, and Billy was certain that he himself would not love them so much.”
These two characters seem destined to become close friends leading similar lives on the margins of society, imprisoned and shaped by their own confined living arrangements. But after one night of intense partying their respective fates will change only to be reunited several years later in the most unconventional of places given the lives they had lived in between.
The author takes the main protagonist Jack through normal day-to-day occurrences of a man habitually incarcerated to that of an occasionally free man hoping for change, or a little of that same old thang. Whether it is looking for a piece of ass, a decrepit place to stay, or a crappy job you know where he’s heading…or do you? What happens later is quite amazing in that while he is with his latest squeeze, Jack experiences something that many take for granted, allowing the author to describes his feelings so vividly, while also providing a narrative for the people that have lost that value in the otherwise beautiful world. I don’t know why, but certain elements struck me in this book. I think it had to do with the spontaneity of the events rather than the common categorization of the delicacy that is the bacon-double cheeseburger, or the insatiable appetite for anything wearing a short skirt. The author takes a common plot line and makes it more appreciable even if it was coming from a considerably hardened, yet a comprehensible point of view.
There were also plenty of social and political commentaries involving many topics, including: whether the state of prison is a reformation project or a punishment system, the ideologies of marriage, child protection and other fascinating references that maintained an even balance between the representation of plausible experiences and a subversive effort to sway opinion. Nothing came across that the author was writing around a message, he was merely writing himself into a point for which he made loud and clear.
“But I don’t want to be a Negro; I don’t want to be a white man; I don’t want to be a married man; I don’t want to be a businessman; I don’t want to be lonely. Life seemed to be a figure eight. It terrified him, sitting on the bus, as if time had opened black jaws and swallowed him.”
This is a novel that puts the readers focus literally on the fringes of everything that could possibly come to mind. When things seemed to have settled, a small wind rocks the boat only to be left gasping for air in troubled water. In most cases you struggle to reach safety, but you eventually wonder if what you’re fighting for is all that important in the grand scheme of things. I mean you’ve been fighting your whole life for some semblance of normalcy and all you ever find is yourself behind a door without a way out.
This book is so smart yet very readable, not as dated as many 1960’s novels can be, it provides great talking points that are very appropriate in today’s world. The story has traces of extreme brutality, unrelenting hope, undeniable love, and utter sadness yet never wavering from the one solitary feeling that life is truly what you make it.
“He thought about them, both of them, often, as he sat in darkness and dreamed away his past; thought of Denny’s friendliness, his openhearted kindness; blew it up all out of proportion, made Denny into a kind of saint in his memory; effectively destroyed the real Denny – thought about Billy and about his talent, his courage, exaggerated him as he did with Denny, so that both boys became almost symbolic of what he lacked, or what he dreamed, in darkness, that he lacked. Then he forgot about them as he forgot about almost everything. But that was later.”