Tragic Tales From Brownsville, N.Y.
THE tragedy and deception of ``The Ville,'' a new book by Greg Donaldson, does not begin with the first murder; it begins with the cover's subtitle.
Black letters on a yellow ticker tape like the plastic ribbon police unfurl around a crime scene promise the reader a depiction of ``Cops and Kids in Urban America.''
But the story is not about urban America: It is a true story about Brownsville, a poor area of Brooklyn dominated by public housing and a high murder rate, especially among young black males. Guns and drugs are currency on the streets. Kids are killed in school.
It is a story, which if told correctly, could help readers to better understand the circumstances that cause children to kill each other and policemen to beat up suspects they have already handcuffed.
Donaldson, a white freelance journalist, witnessed murders, chases, teenage parties, and drug deals during the year he trailed two black members of the community: Gary Lemite, a housing policeman, and Sharron Corley, a high school student. His research is detailed and immense.
The manner in which Donaldson chose to write the story, however, is a maze of new and old journalism, straight talk and unexplained jargon. Scenes are randomly scattered through chapters like unglued photographs in an album.
Bad grammar, flabby prose, and unwelcome opinions lead the reader through a forest of unnecessary details. Characters appear and disappear without leaving an impression. Even the main characters are so haphazardly depicted that we do not learn that Lemite is black until Page 116, or that Corley, whom Donaldson describes only as a handsome and talented young actor before Page 221, actually has a long arrest record for shoplifting.
The story begins in a patrol car, but not Lemite's patrol car. Two housing policemen are answering a radio call about gunshots fired in a nearby schoolyard. While the policemen call the ambulance and a crowd gathers, Donaldson takes the reader through a small history of Brownsville's transformation from a Jewish enclave to an urban black ghetto before the murdered boy's mother arrives. The rest of the book is as chaotic and insensitive.
During the story's most dramatic event, a face-off between two boys in a school hallway, Donaldson again plucks the reader from a tense scene, this time to impose his own opinion of why the other children in the hallway do not intervene to stop the fight.
``One of the byproducts of television, coupled with lack of guidance and long-term goals, is a withered attention span,'' he interjects before describing how the brother of one of the boys retrieves a gun from his book bag and accidentally kills a bystander. The effect is the same as if Clint Eastwood stopped mid-scene to turn to the camera and say, ``Just say no,'' before he pulled the trigger in a duel.
The book is filled with these suppositions and opinions, gleaned, one supposes, from Donaldson's years as a teacher in the public school system. However poignant they may be, they act like brake pads on his stories.
Another authorial imposition is Donaldson's unmasked reverence for his subjects. He loves Corley's style, in and out of jail. Lemite, even when other policemen around him are chastising him for a big ego, is always presented as right.
In one improbable instance, Donaldson tells the reader that policeman Tilly is ``the kind of young man you cannot help but like,'' and two pages later Tilly punches a handcuffed teenager in the head, excusing himself with a haughty, ``I couldn't help it.''
Where Donaldson does succeed in humanizing the conflicts of Brownsville is in scenes from Corley's imprisonment and in snatches of recorded conversation throughout the book. The reader is treated to a rare glimpse inside Riker's Island, where drugs and guns are replaced with cigarettes and boxes of cookies. Back in Brownsville, when shots are fired, a mother says, ``As long as blood doesn't come under that door, I don't care what madness is going on outside,'' before she insists her children move away from the window.
With a lot of editing, Donaldson's story could become a moving portrayal of a neighborhood long forgotten despite its most famous citizen, Mike Tyson (whose name does not appear until Page 122). Right now, it is a long magazine article.