Miss Attitude over at Reading in Color has a meme called “Male Monday.” I don’t think I could make this a weekly thing, but I just finished a really good book by and about a young man, Ball Don’t Lie. One reason I probably couldn’t commit to a weekly review is that I don’t often read books written by men. Or about men, even. “That’s reverse sexism!” I can hear some anti-feminist cry. And I admit, it is a bias I’m not proud of, and I do push myself to read outside of my comfort zone (though how many men read books by and about women?). Doret over at The Happy Nappy Bookseller raved about Mexican WhiteBoy, and I trust her judgment; plus I “met” Matt de la Peña while doing the Writers Against Racism series, and really liked what he had to say in that interview. “But,” I thought to myself, “it’s a sports book.” And in my mind, I confess, that meant basic (if not bad) writing and tons of locker room jokes about T&A. One of the main reasons I avoid books by men is my apprehension around the representation of women: are they fully-developed characters, or just pretty props there to soothe male egos and provide sexual services on demand?
Thankfully, this is NOT the case with Ball Don’t Lie (2005); the writing is riveting at times, always engaging and original, and since I happen to love basketball, I wasn’t put off by the detailed descriptions of the action on court. In fact, one of the greatest strengths of this book is the author’s obvious intimacy with and love for the game; equally impressive is his unflinching description of L.A. with its wealthy, plastic people living alongside grimy, trash-picking vagrants and regular folk, some of whom work hard at their jobs, and some of whom slide into illicit activities. In this complex yet cohesive world of startling contrasts, Sticky doesn’t stand out—until he steps onto the court at Lincoln Rec. There, he is a white boy with dazzling skills, trying to earn respect, learn from, and at times dominate the older black players. They, in turn, initiate and educate him through various macho traditions, and in the end, they become the only loving family this foster-child (who suffers from undiagnosed obsessive compulsive disorder) has ever known. When Sticky is sexually assaulted in the gym bathroom, all the players rush off the court and form a mob to avenge the indignity. The homophobic epithets fly, of course (along with some bottles and rocks), but in the end, Sticky wishes he had handled the attacker himself (like a man) instead of running to report the assault to his friends (“like a bitch”).
There are some things I wish could have happened differently in this book; there is a Native Son moment at the end where Sticky morphs into Bigger Thomas, insanely bent on committing a crime even though he just rationally concluded that it was unnecessary. But overall, I can’t really argue with this kind of urban realism. I don’t doubt the narrative’s authenticity one bit, and appreciate that the author at least included a *range* of male characters; they’re not all hustlers, some do have jobs, some are insecure and vicious, and some are arrogant and misinformed but nonetheless well-meaning. de la Peña has created a story that is consistent and convincing, and compelling despite (what at times feels like) an unrelenting display of male dysfunction. Best of all, he gives his main character a moral dilemma so there’s room for growth; this isn’t just a voyeuristic venture into a young man’s rather sad and sometimes seedy life. The novel frequently mentions the many homeless people drifting in and out of scenes; they are asleep in the park, sifting through dumpsters outside the gym, and even living on the gym’s second court. They are a constant reminder that Sticky could very easily slide down that slope and join their ranks; after all, he started out on the street, begging with his mother for change. When she starts turning tricks and moves her pimp into their home, Sticky acquires his first scar (a cigarette burn behind the ear) after accidentally knocking over said pimp’s weed. Sticky is later rejected by three foster families and he isn’t a strong student, to say the least. But he’s got a dream—an obsession, really—and that’s pretty much all that keeps him afloat. That and his girl, Anh-thu (pron. “on two”).
She meets him the first time when he comes into her store to shoplift some pants. She meets him a second time when he comes back for another attempt at stealing a pair of pants. Instead, they take a walk together once she gets off work, and next thing you know: girlfriend’s dropping her drawers for this boy. My 36-year old self says, “Hunh. That’s not gonna end well” (no mention of a condom and she does later have a pregnancy scare). de la Peña spares us the details of this first sexual encounter under a bridge and instead cuts to the chase: “You wanna be my girl?” Sticky asks once it’s over. “I totally do,” she says, and it’s a done deal. There are a lot of things you have to take with a grain of salt when you’re an adult reading a book about contemporary teens. I can’t exactly turn off my “feminist filter,” but I also want to give the characters a fair shake. She’s fifteen, from a strict, single-parent family in which she’s the only female; her Vietnamese father has only contempt for “American boys” and polices her movements as well as her skirt length. She’s a “good girl”: studies hard to get good grades so she can attend the college of her choice (whichever school Sticky picks); she has a part-time job, and describes her fashion sense as “jeans and a sweatshirt.” Of course, she’s beautiful: long, straight black hair, “dark” skin (I’m guessing that’s relative to Sticky’s pale skin), and stunning green eyes. I’m a little weary of authors granting their male protags beautiful (and too often biracial) girlfriends. But most troubling about Anh-thu is that she seems to expect nothing from Sticky; when he promises to take her to a party and then stops along the way to shoot hoops in a park after dark, she tries reading by lamplight and then lies down on the asphalt and goes to sleep as he obsessively takes shot after shot. When she asks questions about his mother and Sticky freaks out, she has the courage to say, “Don’t yell at me.” But then leaves the matter alone and they celebrate their six-month anniversary by having sex in the nearby public bathroom. For her 16th birthday, she hopes Sticky will take her somewhere low-key so they can sit and watch people go by, and she can listen to him talk about his latest escapade with the guys at the gym because “she likes listening.” How do you fall for a guy with no job, a serious untreated mental disorder, and only hoop dreams to prop him up? Well, she’s fifteen and motherless. He’s tall, good-looking, the best player on the basketball team. He never noticed her at school and didn’t pursue her once they met–in fact, he turned her down when she first asked him to go out (dating hasn’t been part of Sticky’s unusual social history). And how likely is she to find a teenage boy anywhere who would actually listen to HER?
Unfortunately for me, the novel ends just at the point I’d like it to begin–well, maybe the ending could have been the middle. I want to see the redeemed male, the young man learning to express his emotions, accepting the help his devoted girlfriend is offering. Instead, Sticky cries while Anh-thu sleeps next to his hospital bed, oblivious to his pain. It’s still a critical moment, and quite touching. But it doesn’t move the narrative forward because all that happens at the end of the book. But at least it’s THERE and maybe the coaching staff at UCLA will realize this kid needs some academic tutoring and some psychiatric help. Maybe Sticky won’t turn into the stereotypical professional athlete with an overbearing sense of entitlement. Maybe Anh-thu won’t become a trophy wife who alternately cheers from the sidelines and props up her man’s ego after every game lost. Maybe there’s going to be a different future for these kids. Maybe.
I’ll be very interested in seeing the film adaptation of the novel, which comes out later this month (you can watch a trailer here). Can you read the tagline? “The system lost him. She found him. The game saved him.”