Authentic thugdom from an ex-Crip
Grove Press: 320 pp., $19.95
BLACK LOS ANGELES is generally portrayed in popular culture as a treacherous and brutal landscape full of sexy guns, loc’ed out gangsters, untrustworthy women and corrupt police. While these tropes have a relationship to reality, they lack nuance and proportion. Rappers are not necessarily the most reliable reporters, even though, back in the day, rap was thought to be the CNN of the ‘hood. There’s too much hyperbole and braggadocio, although sometimes the results are astonishing, as in the ironic brilliance of Ice Cube’s “What Can I Do” or “My Summer Vacation,” both of which I’m sure will some day be included in a Norton Anthology.
All this only complicates the already tricky issue of authenticity, which can be a burden for the writer who wants to render black L.A. Sometimes offering a different point of view -- no matter how accurate -- flies in the face of the expectations of the culture, and the writer suffers for being perceived as inauthentic.
Authenticity is not a problem in Sanyika Shakur’s first novel, “T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E.” Shakur is the former Kody Scott, a one-time member of the Eight-Tray Crips and author of the 1993 memoir “Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member.” Although he’s been in and out of prison since the 1980s and is currently incarcerated, “T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E.” is intended as an inspirational novel, one rooted in the notion of being ghetto strong and existing as a “New Afrikan.”
The novel’s title is an acronym for “The Homies Undergo Generational Life in Five Episodes,” as well as a shout-out to Tupac Shakur. The story revolves around a professed thug, Lapeace, who is a thoughtful and brilliant antihero, supremely competent in all things gangster, like an inner-city Jason Bourne. For Lapeace, thugdom is a code of honor, a way of life. “Lapeace was a thug and he lived a thug life,” Shakur writes. “He wasn’t a criminal, as he’d once been, because he took nothing from anyone, except, when the opportunity presented itself, a federally insured Bank of Brinks truck. He sold no dope and hustled no women. His hustle: venture capital and the stock market.”
Lapeace is not barren of reflection. He aspires to live an enlightened life. And yet, he sometimes has to blast on envious bustas, most of all his oddly named nemesis, Anyhow. “With his weapon down against his left side,” Shakur writes of Lapeace, “he jogged nonchalantly across the street and began walking on the opposite side of a gathered crowd. . . . When he had gotten within a house distance he raised his AK47 and opened it up. He shot down every standing body he saw.”
Like a lot of so-called “ghetto lit,” this is rough-hewn, melodramatic, although it’s certainly vital. At the same time, “T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E.” illustrates the contradictions of authenticity. “It’s good that black folks are reading, but why do we need to read those books?” I’ve heard more than one African American bookseller say. That’s not an uncommon reaction to the vogue for street fiction that has swept contemporary black literature like a bittersweet tsunami.
“T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E.” works best when Shakur draws the territory of South-Central Los Angeles: Arlington Double, Crenshaw Boulevard and the schools that seem unbelievable in their chaos. In places, the novel possesses great narrative momentum, but when it comes to people, Shakur’s writing can be thin. Other than Lapeace, and a Latino detective named Mendoza, the book lacks characters who resonate. The relationship between Lapeace and Shima, his love interest, is unusual because he respects women, which is uncommon in the gangster world.
Often, “T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E.” seems rushed, written in a kind of shorthand, as if it were more a screenplay than a developed novel in its own right. Shakur’s work is packed with action, but the novel could have benefited from stronger editing, which might have given Lapeace a better chance to be an Easy Rawlins for the hip-hop set.