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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Switchblade Fiction: The Vandals by John A. Vikara

No offense to Nuyockas, but you couldn't pay me enough to live anywhere near youze guys. I've visited the Big Apple and enjoyed seeing it up close. I've read about it, watched documentaries on the city, and am fascinated by the history of it, etc. When I was younger and not nearly the cantankerous curmudgeon I am now, I even managed to sit through West Side Story--dance scenes and all.

Vikara's novel is the best book I've read so far about street gang turf wars, fiction or non-fiction.

It follows the episodic structure of The Wanderers, which has its pros and cons. On the plus side, it covers the rise and fall of the gang inside the decade in a cumulatively objective manner, getting inside the heads of a handful of the key members. It also allows for realism, while still moving the plot forward. On the negative side, the format is a bit jarring, abandoning some characters just as you're starting to root for them.

The author was a youth gang member himself, and I appreciate his insights. I've never lived in Gotham and was not alive to experience the era portrayed here. Still, I've developed a prejudice: I unconsciously assume all the turf wars took place in Brookyln, the Bronx or the rougher parts of Manhattan, and wouldn't ordinarily associate Queens with street gangs. Yet there it is, and the deaths are no less fatal because they occurred in Queens.

The story ends on a bittersweet note. You could call it a depressing note, but some Vandals and their friendships survive. There are a couple guys who die by a cruel twist of coincidence and fate, which has all the morbid hopelessness of a story from one of the horror comics read by some of the gang members. I didn't see the point of that, but the novel as a whole is still a good one and was impossible for me to put down.

At 99 cents for your Kindle, you can't go wrong.

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