The first line of the second story of Jervey Tervalon’s Living for the City neatly sums up the pages to come: “We knew the neighborhood was changing.” In the 21 stories that follow, Tervalon charts with a remarkably steady hand the alteration of black Los Angeles, following a half-dozen boys as they weave their way through an increasingly lethal adolescence.
In many of the early stories, grouped together under the heading “Knucklehead,” Tervalon employs an ideal narrator in Garvy Michaels: a skittish, comic book–reading “pootbutt,” as scared and wide-eyed in the face of the violence spreading virally through the avenues as his reader will inevitably be. As once-sedate street festivals are broken up with shotguns, Garvy learns to beware of slow-moving cars, to avoid the back of the bus, to accept the simple logic that “these guys had to shoot at those guys and those guys would be back . . . to shoot at these guys and maybe even me.”
Some of the best of these early stories don’t involve street violence at all: “Love Land” expertly and at times hilariously tracks the dissolution of Garvy’s parents’ marriage; “Getting the Goat” is a bizarrely touching father-son tale in which young Gumbo and his dad steal a sheep from a highway-side field and slaughter it for a Fourth of July barbecue. In all of them, Tervalon writes with a disarming simplicity that lets him effortlessly avoid both patronizing his characters and romanticizing the brutality with which they all too often live.
Much of the second half of Living for the City, however, is disappointing. Garvy and friends have grown up to become part of “that whole shooting hoops, getting something to eat, smoking joints, going on long drives, watching Sidney insult the dimwits and make deals thing” which they’d so looked forward to as young knuckleheads. While some of the stories are excellent (like “Cast Out,” in which Gumbo’s parents drunkenly ambush him with a baseball bat and golf club; and “Social Work,” a gut-wrenchingly bleak account of a sexual encounter at the sanitarium where Gumbo has a job sweeping up), too many of the resulting stories get lost in the banality of their characters’ everyday meanderings. Tervalon’s short, demonstrative sentences, woven so tautly in the earlier tales, here just pile up, weighed down by lack of detail and excess exposition.
But such crimes are easily forgivable — the foreword reveals that while the first half of the book was written recently, many of the later stories were written 20 years ago, when Tervalon was only 18. Seen in that light, their flaws just show how far he’s come as a writer, and how lucky we are that he’s kept at it.