A review by Stanley Bennett Clay
In the typical world of urban fiction so often the lead characters’ socio-economic realities are usually bleak, raw, violent, hopeless, and psychologically; even irreparably damaged. Much of that is true in author LT Ville’s literary universe. But Keith, the 18-year-old black high school senior and narrator, is a refreshing enigma in this exceptionally well-written, funny, romantic, heart-breaking and thought-provoking novel.
Keith, who shares an apartment in a run-down Harlem projects with his on-again off-again crack-head mother (while his three younger siblings live with his no-nonsense Nana in Queens), is a bright, intelligent and conscientious student who everybody knows will be the class valedictorian and will surely be accepted into Columbia University. Although many in the high school campus thug community laughingly assume he’s gay because he pursues his studies like they pursue their women, Keith is little bothered by this.
But make no mistake. Keith is nobody’s nerdy push over. Six feet tall, good-looking, one of the best basketball players in the hood, and with an already established reputation for taking names and kicking ass, he’s as focused on his academic future as he is on the thin thread that vicariously holds his family and friends together. And he’s no cock-eyed optimist. His hopefulness is real but chilled. We get that from the first words he shares with us:
“The streetlights were ghetto stars. I looked out my bedroom window and all I saw was darkness and light—streetlights. I was 18. My mother was 32. I didn’t know my father. Nana said he was probably a lowlife, locked up for murder or some shit like that. Mama said he was probably a lawyer or somebody really important and he probably owned a mansion in the Hamptons. I knew she was dreaming, but I liked her dreams better than knowing the truth.”
Life changes for our bro-wonder when a 6’ 4” wanna-be thug transfer student who calls himselfD, and his mixed-race, messed-up cousin Jes enter Keith’slife. Keith must seriously re-evaluate his sexuality when he clumsily responds to D’s romantic come-ons and finds himself sexually attracted to Jes:
“He was breathtaking. I noticed him at his seat when I first walked in the room. He had a really light complexion, with hazel eyes, plump pink lips and soft looking curly black hair…He was saying something else, but I was too busy noticing that he was beautiful. The thought of his beauty made me sick. I didn’t understand why I was looking at another guy that way. I tried to smile and laugh it off in my head, but my mind was at war with itself…I spent the entire class bashing my thoughts and trying to convince myself that it was just the normal musings that most people had, but nothing calmed my nerves. I was ready to run out the class when it ended, but the teacher asked me and Jesse to stay after for a few minutes.
“Keith would you get Jesse up to date in this class?”
“Sure, sir,” I told him as I glanced over at Jesse to get a peek. He was smiling. Even his teeth were beautiful.”
Barely on the DL, D falls hard for Keith. Keith realizes he’s in love with D, but something inside him makes it hard to be sexually intimate with him. This is so not the case with Jes whose sexual advances Keith tries to resist mightily. After all, D, the guy he loves and the guy who loves him, is the cousin of Jes, Keith’s irresistible sexual fantasy. The battle between Keith’s heart and his hard-on is a frustrating draw. The revelation of a devastating childhood trauma Keith had long since forgotten explains a lot about Keith’s stiltedphysical relationship with D, whileJes’ ulterior motives for coming on to Keith reveal the aches and pains Jes has suffered throughout his young and tattered life.
Keith’s best friend, heterosexual Lemar, is Keith’s voice of reason and soul mate who constantly urges Keith to cherish the unconditional love D has for him because one day it can turn conditional, or even disappear. Lemar’s mother is also a crack-head and his living situation is even worse than Keith’s. Suffering a childhood trauma of his own—Lemar’s father was shot dead by a drive by when his father came looking for him while he, Lemar, was out playing late past his curfew. Constantly reminded by his mother with cursings, rants and beatings that he was responsible for his father’s death, Lemar is a dedicated son out of guilt and genuine love for his mother and his young nephews he fatherly cares for nightly while still keeping his grades up at school.
These young high school seniors carry a mighty emotional load crammed unfairly into their still fragile teenage lives. That they have each other and lift each other up through the good and the bad is a tribute to why Black lives matter so much. Sure, they may live in a physical ghetto, but their hearts, minds and soul are not confined behind those walls.
It is not a spoiler to reveal that Keith indeed becomes valedictorian of his high school class—just read his remarkable graduation speak at the book’s close—and goes off to Columbia University, and that love conquers all. It is not the ending—though it brings beautiful tears to your eyes—that remarkably tells the story of these remarkable young black souls. It is the journey they traverse and survive that holds us in humanitarian awe.
So far I’ve read this book twice. I will soon read it again. Mr. Ville. You, sir, have written a Young Adult masterpiece!