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7 april 2015

The late Walter Dean Myers was remarkable for his consistency, writing books in a number of modes and genres, for different age groups; he always delivered something readable and often something especially memorable. I first read some of his happier sport-themed books for younger readers, and then some of his better-known texts on themes of crime and war. But I hadn't read Scorpions, another crime/gang novel but, like Myers's other books, of high quality and sure in its achievement of what it's after.

The focal character in Scorpions is Jamal. We learn piecemeal that Jamal lives with his sister Sassy and their mother, in Harlem (and, needful to say now, in the 1980s). Jamal's father is a very occasional presence in their lives, and his elder brother Randy is upstate, in prison, for murder.

Jamal, only twelve, is embattled at school. For once, the hero of a Newbery Honor book is not much of a reader, though he's a smart guy and a talented artist. (I wonder what children's books have to say to the millions of us who have no particular talent. Though I guess they could be avid readers; I certainly took that route.) Jamal is on his way to reform school, and perhaps worse; perhaps he will take his brother's route into gangs and gunplay and murder.

About 3/4 of the way through, Myers shunts that plot option onto Jamal's best friend Tito. One gets the sense that he is "sideshadowing" Jamal's own impending tragedy, but not having the heart to load it onto a character we care too much about. The result may be a copout (and to talk about it, I must engage in spoilers, so stop reading now if you love surprises).

In the end, Jamal goes ambiguously free (though he may be circling the drain of gang violence). Tito, who has killed a gangsta to save Jamal's life, goes free because Mack, an ambitious warlord, conveniently takes the blame. Nobody lives happily ever after, mind you. Jamal's and Tito's lives are blighted. But readers are spared seeing Jamal head directly into the violent death that the novel seems to foreshadow for him. Instead we see other characters take on aspects of his fate, and we're spared to walk free with him, and hopefully change our own lives before it's too late.

Myers could easily have become a preachy writer with a program for inner-city kids. But he remained true to a more aesthetic calling that raises problems without solving them. He's a modernist, not a naturalist, if you will, and his best effects come from close observation of everyday life: food, language, living quarters, family dynamics. Scorpions is neither Pollyannish after-school special nor stark "statement" novel. It attempts to show sympathetic characters unable to do much of anything right because circumstances prevent them: because, as Jamal reflects at one point, things just happen to them; they can't ever make positive choices in the world.

Myers, Walter Dean. Scorpions. 1988. New York: HarperCollins, 1990. PZ 7 .M992Sc