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In Search of an Enemy

Wed, 06/29/2022 - 21:33
Sudhir Venkatesh
Sharon Suh

“The Tomorrow Game”
Sudhir Venkatesh
Simon & Schuster, $27.99

A good friend of mine is a great reader. His enthusiasm and penchant for taking a work personally, as if the author had singled him out for the experience, inspires me to read more. But what I like most is the ceremony my friend conducts upon completing a book. With a monk's solemnity, he holds the paperback or hardcover (no Kindle for him) in outstretched hands and bows like a prizefighter to a ringside audience. He then chooses a spot on his library shelf for its final resting place. 

I have adopted my own ritual. Before starting a book, I study the author's biography and any accompanying photo. Then I say aloud: "Nice to meet you. I'm John." Sometimes, I imagine a friendly response in return: "Hello, John. I'm James Joyce. Be a good chap and fetch us a pint." Humor aside, my aim is to acknowledge the humanity of the writer (dead or alive), to lower the haloed veil of artistry and position the writer as an equal, someone who needs me as much as I need him. Reading is a symbiotic relationship, and by voicing this connection, I feel I'm taking responsibility for my role in the equation. 

And so, recently, I made literary acquaintance with Sudhir Venkatesh, the author of "The Tomorrow Game," a work of narrative nonfiction. When an advance copy came into my life for this review, after initiating an introduction as described above, I began the journey. Here's what I discovered:

"The Tomorrow Game," at 227 pages, is a fast read. It picks up in pace, with shorter and shorter chapters, as the story weaves toward resolution. This technique reminds me of Agatha Christie, who compacted her chapters (and sentences) toward the end of a novel in order to heighten tension and propel the reader quickly to the last page. Mr. Venkatesh also employs the Christie hallmark of using multiple viewpoints to tell a story, allowing different characters to express a unique perspective on a singular event. Here, the event is an escalating crisis, a potentially deadly conflict between two groups of teenagers on Chicago's South Side. 

Mr. Venkatesh has been connected to the South Side for three decades. An experienced ethnographer, a sociology professor, and a former senior adviser for the Department of Justice, he has worked professionally with many residents of the area on studies and documentaries exploring crime and poverty. But he has also connected with these individuals on a personal level. As he explains, with gratitude, "they are also my godchildren, friends, mentors, and people I have trained in the use of community-oriented research."

This is Mr. Venkatesh's fourth book focused on the South Side. While his earlier titles "used the tools of a researcher, such as sampling and hypothesis testing, and looked at life over years at a time," "The Tomorrow Game" spotlights only a few people over a period of a few weeks. Still, it is not narrow in scope or without introspection (he spent 10 years thinking about this story before bringing it to creation). And by choosing narrative nonfiction as the vehicle to tell this tale, which is based on real people and actual circumstances, he gives space and reason for readers to care, understand, and identify with the characters and the complex set of issues they face in an often challenging environment. 

In this book Mr. Venkatesh does well to defend, and define, his ideals on how to best address gun violence in our cities. He does this by introducing two characters, Frankie Paul and Marshall Mariot. Both are African-American and in their teens. Frankie, who had a terrible time in the foster care system after his mother died, has been thrust into the position of leading a team of drug dealers on a block coveted by others in the trade. 

The business was begun by his cousin, Willie, who took Frankie into his home but who is now incarcerated. Frankie is over his head, indecisive and confused, and terrified he will lose everything and have to return to foster care. In a visit to Willie, Frankie is ordered to initiate violence as a way to inspire his team to do better. Willie says, "Right now, you need to give your crew someone to fight, got it? . . . Every soldier got to have an enemy or he ain't a soldier. It's that simple. Dig?" 

But it's not simple for Frankie. New to the game, he can come up with only one option to satisfy Willie's directive — Marshall. Frankie's beef with Marshall is not about drugs. Marshall is not a dealer, or part of an organized gang, or connected to any criminality. He is a normal young man from a good family whose desire is to enjoy his time remaining in high school and go to college. But Frankie hates him, likes to bully him, and, spurred by Willie, decides he and his team will administer a beating and more on Marshall and his friends. 

With the dispute between Frankie and Marshall serving as a crucible, Mr. Venkatesh brings forth other characters who are directly and indirectly involved in the conflict, including Antoine, Frankie's savvy and sensible number-two, Marshall's family, local gun dealers, pastors, police, and detectives. 

This community within a community works in concert or in opposition, seeking to arm or disarm the teens. Those trying for the latter take a pragmatic and psychologically based approach, striving to stop, or at least slow, the sale of a weapon to the teens, while establishing the root of the strife animating these young men. The efficacy of this dual method to combat gun violence, as it plays out, is the essential takeaway of "The Tomorrow Game" — the "medicine" in the sugar water that is story.  

This is a worthwhile read, deserving of a bow, and a place on the bookshelf for others to enjoy when finished. 

John McCaffrey is a director at a nonprofit in the mental health field in New York City. A Wainscott resident, his new book is a story collection, "Automatically Hip."

Sudhir Venkatesh is a professor of sociology and African-American studies at Columbia. He lives part time in Sag Harbor.

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