April 5, 2016
reviewed by Tim Hennessy
Not long after my brother-in-law arrived in Wisconsin for the first time, he could not hide his confusion. Having spent a good portion of his life in California, he didn’t have any point of reference for the Midwest beyond vast blandness and ridiculous accents. One cannot escape the presence of cheese, but we were to his mind and humor, the land of cows and Indians and he hadn’t seen a sign of either. We chose to overlook his sarcasm and tried to oblige, driving until we could locate a few active dairy farms. The part of Wisconsin I’ve lived in most of my life is a notch in the Rust Belt that more closely resembles my brother-in-law’s hometown of Buffalo, which he happily escaped, more than the lawless open expanse punctuated with pot--luck dinners and an unquenchable thirst for beer that he anticipated.
In much of pop culture, the Midwest, particularly Wisconsin, has been a mundane purgatory that remains underexplored in fiction. As young residents are told when wanderlust sets in, Wisconsin is a place you are either born into or you are sent. In Bill Beverly’s Dodgers, the baby-faced characters’ journey to Wisconsin has a critical objective: murder. Rife with coming-of-age trials, Dodgers poetically renders remote beauty among unforeseen dangers.
Beverly’s protagonist East, at fifteen, has risen to a position of authority watching over older boys and keeping an eye on the drug houses his Uncle Fin controls. The night one of the houses gets raided, the usually focused and attentive East is distracted by a girl visiting relatives in the neighborhood who naively tries to impress the corner boys while she plays outside. During the police action and subsequent firefight that erupts, the girl catches a stray bullet and bleeds out before East’s eyes. He bears the guilt and responsibility of her death.
In the wake of the increased attention the girl’s death and the raid brought onto the business, Fin commands East and a crew of other four boys to travel to Wisconsin. A judge who was an asset to their organization, now a witness in hiding until he can testify against them in an upcoming trial, must be killed. Beverly interjects uncertainty that plagues East throughout his journey: is this a precautionary maneuver or a deal with the devil, where the intended objective may be too many moves ahead for East to see? Has Fin’s distant, yet paternal influence, hardened him or overprotected him?
Beverly thrusts a crew of African-American boys 2,000 miles into middle America, giving them a stealth mission into a part of the country where their presence always goes noticed, among a sea of homogenized white faces.
“Everybody tired, even the people getting paid to be there. Everyone with eyeballs, noticing the black boys. The lady with chin length, orange-dyed hair, bright sweater, staring in the candles aisle. East felt small, tried to stay small.”
They are not just driving away from their comfort zones; they are driving into a region that isn’t comfortable with them. Given the fraught nature of their mission, Beverly imbues the plot with an underlying tension daring anyone the boys pass to do more than notice them and wonder if they are actually up to no good. To them, their quest borders on the slightly absurd. Why would an asset to their organization hide where he could be noticed? Or, the more succinct, “What’s a black man doing in Wisconsin?” asks Walter, an older boy whose skills with computers and his part-time job at the DMV have proven useful enabling the gang members access to well-made fake IDs. Also joining East on this mission is Michael Wilson, an annoying showoff who ran Fin’s expansion into the insatiable market of his college campus; and East’s wolfish younger brother Ty, who’s more hood than all three of the older boys combined. Ty’s brashness combined with the volatile group dynamic provides surprises as complications spring up along the way.
When the group distrust of Michael Wilson reaches mutiny levels, he lays out the troubles the youngsters face without him: “You a neighborhood boy. You ain’t in no neighborhood now. There is plenty you don’t know, gangster. You don’t know you can’t go back, because when you fail, there’s no place for you.”East eventually emerges as the group’s leader; forced to no longer observe, but to put his thoughtfulness into decisive action.
The easy reflexive comparison would be to suggest Beverly’s coming-of-age novel channels Richard Price’s work; it does inasmuch as they both strive for a verisimilitude (although Beverly in interviews admits freely that he admires Price’s depth of research, but doesn’t subscribe to the same process) and both authors’ dialogues are absolute joys to read. Beverly has gone beyond the conclusion of Clockers and combined it with his interest in narratives of fugitives in flight.
The journey allows East to shed the confines of growing up impoverished in an urban environment, the limitations of climbing the ranks within the drug trade, and even the cardboard shelters in which he finds comfort enough to sleep. Rising to the challenges, East finds himself expanding beyond the world that has held him. East embraces the change in environment. He learns to adapt, showing a resilient nature to become the man he wants to be. The freedom of leaving behind his home opened him up to possibilities outside of those he knew.
Now my brother-in-law rarely visits. His trips here cause him more anxiety than relaxation. It’s never been clear if it’s any one thing: the inefficiencies of a state slow to evolve or just the pace; the maddening way Wisconsinites live like they drive, clogging lanes, taking time to rubber neck any little thing out of the ordinary. The grating sound of rounded vowels stretched when we speak. Maybe what bothers him isn’t where we live, or even how we live; it could be just who we are.