The characters of Understand This, Jervey Tervalon’s first novel, move between the drug-infested neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles, the similarly infested mansions and discotheques of Santa Barbara, and the utopia of Santa Cruz, where everything seems right. This is a novel of contrasts, between its settings and between its characters. Though Tervalon often employs humor to good effect, his purpose, it becomes clear, is a serious attempt to portray what has been for many people the best road out of the most troubled areas of Los Angeles.
The novel begins with a bang—with a young hoodlum named Doug being shot on the street by his girlfriend, Rika. The only witness to the murder, or perhaps act of self-defense, is Doug’s best friend Francois, a high school senior who makes good money selling drugs but who dreams of becoming a football player. Francois, naturally disturbed by what he has seen, is uncertain whether to revenge Doug’s death himself or to let Ollie, Doug’s younger brother, know where Rika has been living lately so that Ollie might do the deed. He decides on the latter course, but when he meets Ollie, drunk and characteristically belligerent, he finds himself unwilling to confide Rika’s whereabouts.
This reluctance to involve himself more deeply in the nefarious dealings around him exhibits itself throughout the book, but it is not enough in itself to keep Francois from becoming ever more entangled as the story progresses. Indeed, he soon finds himself unwittingly chauffeuring Ollie to Doug’s apartment, where Ollie believes he will find Rika. Suddenly, Francois is in a predicament: He has been seen entering the building, and if Rika is shot, he will be considered an accomplice. He has become a fugitive, at least in possibility. The next time he sees Ollie, he becomes a fugitive in fact. Ollie tricks him into driving the getaway car from a robbery Ollie has just pulled. Francois’ only choice, it seems to him, is to flee to Santa Barbara with another friend, Tommy, to perform some test-marketing for Cowboy, their neighborhood drug kingpin, among the rich white clientele of this seaside resort, a paradise compared to Los Angeles.
This manner of getting away from the dangers of his neighborhood contrasts deeply with the more thoughtful movements made by Francois’ girlfriend, Margot. Although she is entirely unsupportive of his involvement with selling drugs, she has remained with him, having feelings for him that she herself cannot fully admit. Still, she knows that their relationship will not last. She has a definite plan to escape from her neighborhood, and she has the willpower to carry it out. Her plan seems simple: finish high school and go to college. Indeed, while Francois is a fugitive in Santa Barbara, she attends a transition program for African American students at the university in Santa Cruz. She finds herself the only person from the inner city; the rest of the students are from relatively privileged backgrounds. Culturally alienated at first, she nevertheless decides that she can appreciate the company of the other students, even that of an overly attentive young man with dreadlocks whom she finds insufferable at first but in the end charming and fun.
Meanwhile, Francois finds himself in deeper trouble when Tommy’s new girlfriend runs off with the money owed to Cowboy from their dealings. Now, in his bedroom back in his mother’s house in Los Angeles, he is hiding from both the law and from his former employer. He goes out only at night, to run for exercise, forgoing school and all contact with his friends. To make matters worse, his mother has decided to sell the house and move back East in order to effect her and her daughter’s own escape from the destructiveness around her. Ironically, Francois’ faltering attempts to put the streets of South Central behind him have landed him ever more stuck in them.
Throughout the book, the figure of Mr. Michaels, a teacher in the high school both Margot and Francois attend, serves to define the dilemmas and struggles of the novel’s two main characters. He too aims to escape. Indeed, in large part he already has. Also reared in the inner city, he now lives with his fiancée in the suburbs. Yet he still teaches in the...
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