So You Wanna Be a Gangsta? Hang With a Street Crew?

Street Kingdom: Five Years Inside the Franklin Avenue Posse , by Douglas Century. Warner Books, 415 pages, $25.

Several years ago, at an elementary-school Christmas play in upstate New York, I sat behind three white fourth-graders from the most remote and poorest section of the rural school district. In all likelihood, the boys had never seen an actual African-American person, except on television and on rare trips to Kingston, 40 miles away. Nonetheless, they wore their version of authentic gangsta attire: humongous windpants, baggy sweatshirts, baseball caps turned backward. During one confusing scene-something about Santa looking for his slacker elves-one of the boys turned to his friends and said, “Yo, man, whassup? What that mothafucka be saying?”

I recalled that question all too often while reading Street Kingdom , Douglas Century’s similarly poignant attempt to bridge the gap between races and cultures, a book that serves as a cautionary example of high energy and good intentions colliding head-on with modest reportorial, psychological and organizational skills. This sincere but muddled account of the writer’s intense, unsettling friendship with a rapper he refers to as “K” suffers partly from Mr. Century’s dreamy fascination with the racial and socioeconomic Other, and partly from his compulsion to write a book, any book: a desire that inspired him to search his present and past experience for a suitable subject.

Some of the resultant difficulties are alluded to in an author’s note reminiscent of those warning labels on dodgy household products: “The writing of this book presented several technical problems, not the least of which stemmed from the fact that, for the earliest years covered by the chronology, I had no notion that I was ever going to write it. The narrative, therefore, reflects this hybrid status: partly a work of reportage, partly a memoir of events which occurred at a time when I had no conscious-or at least premeditated-plan to document them.”

Forewarned is forearmed, but even so we may feel ill-equipped to follow Mr. Century when he takes off at full throttle with “no clear journalistic road map,” beginning in 1994 with a trip to the Tombs to visit K, who is awaiting trial on charges that will not be fully explained until the book is almost over. From there we go back to Mr. Century’s 1992 meeting with the angry, highly gifted, temporarily homeless rapper at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe-an encounter that could hardly have been more fortuitous for Mr. Century, who was having motivational problems of his own, “sleepwalking and looking for Kerouac’s ‘mongrel America’-vaguely chasing down the dream of being a writer-until I found myself sleepwalking square into that towering Panamanian with the eyes burning like live coals … and from that day on the labyrinth of New York began to unfold in turns too strange to be imagined.”

Strange turns indeed, but perhaps less convoluted than Mr. Century’s narrative, which bounces from K’s Brooklyn childhood back to the summer of 1992, then back again to the “Franklin Avenue Posse’s ‘heyday’ in the mid- to late 80’s”-days when K and his friends were legendary in Crown Heights for some serious drug-dealing and violence. Then the plot moves forward, more or less, to describe K’s run-ins with record producers, murderous hoodlums-and the law. This free-form approach to storytelling too closely mirrors K’s own experience, chaotic enough without extra help from a notebook-toting Boswell.

Though disorienting, the lapses in coherence pose a relatively minor dilemma compared to the worrisome matter of how little thought seems to have gone into the writing of this book, how little attention is paid to the serious questions (race, class, etc.) that it raises. Mr. Century’s Panamanian fiancée (the book’s most sympathetic, levelheaded character) sagely tries to point out his regrettable blind spots concerning such (one might think) relevant matters as ethnicity and privilege: “She said she didn’t care how many rap records I bought or how many midnight reggae parties I went to, I was still a white, middle-class Jewish guy from the wilds of Canada, and what the hell could I possibly know about the streets?” Too soon, Mr. Century’s jacked-up prose style and unfortunate choice of metaphor have signaled to the reader more than the writer himself seems to understand about his overidentification with the charismatic street poet: “Everywhere we went that night I caught those fearful glances, witnessed his uncanny capacity to turn people to stone. Walking alongside him, stride for stride, I could almost feel, for one flashbulb instant, what it was like to be in his skin-not simply possessing an inherent power to terrorize, but never escaping from that power. Even laughing good-naturedly, he needed only to appear in a bodega or on a subway platform to see the blanched faces recoiling from him in mute terror.”

A more perspicacious journalist might have given more consideration to the fact that it is extremely difficult-if not impossible-for a Princeton-educated reporter to intuit his way inside the skin of a tough, hard-luck Panamanian kid from “Crime Heights.” But Mr. Century is too busy getting off on his ability to get down with K and his friends. Why bother with the implications of their very different backgrounds and destinies, and of how his presence in their lives contributes to their hopes and fears, their ambitions and disappointments?

Of course, a first-rate writer can imagine the thoughts and feelings of any subject from any race, gender or class. Richard Price does so regularly in his brilliant novels; Cristina Rathbone succeeded with the inner-city high school kids she wrote about in On the Outside Looking In ; Anne Fadiman managed with the Hmong people she described so movingly in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down . What’s required, I think, is to begin from a position of humility, ignorance and innocence; to examine your hidden motives, needs and preconceptions; to acknowledge the lengthy, demanding and painful effort necessary to even begin to understand; and to accept the likelihood that you will still get everything wrong. What’s needed is the patience and faith for a slow, humbling education rather than a craving for the rush of standing beside your scary new friend and listening to reggae with a bass so low “you could no longer hear it, you could only feel it … wrestling your own heartbeat away from you.”

Wouldn’t it be smarter to hang on to your heartbeat, as well as your identity-and, for that matter, your brain? Otherwise, for whom are you writing? Surely not for K and his friends, surely not for the reader who knows or cares anything about their world. One possible clue lies in Mr. Century’s expressed wish to understand Brooklyn, a place that “could be known-in Thomas Wolfe’s impeccable phrase-only by the souls of the dead.… I wanted to stand in the dark, dangerous corners where tourists never ventured.”

Perhaps Street Kingdom ‘s ideal reader is a person whose similar longings are at war with his own more cautious impulse to hire an armored car for an excursion to see the ballet at B.A.M. Perhaps such readers will be delighted to have Douglas Century-an essentially sympathetic guy who shares so many of their fantasies and concerns-plunge into the “dark, dangerous” abyss, and take the subway for them.

So You Wanna Be a Gangsta? Hang With a Street Crew?