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East Oakland sends mixed messages

Some students have turned to such illegal means as prostitution or drug-running to raise quick cash for college tuition, and for Firstborn Walker-the academically-talented protagonist of Straight Outta East Oakland-selling drugs is the chosen path.

In order to receive an 80 percent scholarship offered by a mysterious alumni organization to attend the prestigious Alston University-a fictitious college seemingly based on UC Berkeley-Firstborn must provide the remaining 20 percent by the end of the summer. Unemployed and facing the possibility of homelessness, he turns to a street-hardened, drug-dealing friend named Drama for help.

Author Harry Louis Williams II, a minister at Allen Temple Baptist Church on International Boulevard in Oakland, uses this setup to shed light on the disparities between the Bay Area’s privileged and impoverished, as well as to expose the deadly cycle of street life. Peppered with vivid character descriptions and mentions of several East Oakland locations (such as Jack London Square, Fruitvale BART, and sections of International Boulevard), the novel succeeds in being both an interesting cautionary tale and a call for greater community involvement in the lives of troubled youth.

That being said, the overall telling of the tale keeps the work from being a page-turner. Lines such as “I would have roller-skated through hell in a gasoline T-shirt for a third kiss” seem out of place and phrases such as “in the hood” and “homeboy” are overused. Also, instances of mischaracterization and uneven narration stretch artistic license and dampen the story’s momentum.

For example, while Firstborn is a bookworm and nice guy by design, he appears too na’ve at times given his familiarity with East Oakland street life and experience gained as a dope dealer. Another example is found in a scene where Firstborn’s drug-addicted friend, Lonnie, is found searching the ground intently for a dropped crack rock one moment and delivering a mouthful of academic speech the next.

Given the narrator’s description of how crack transforms people into soulless fiends, it’s unlikely Lonnie would have the presence of mind to utter impromptu phrases such as, “Isn’t that the radical right-wing Berkeley think tank that’s always in the news for trying to torpedo affirmative-action programs?”

In the end, Straight Outta East Oakland deserves accolades for being a resource for those who believe the drug game is the only viable way to escape poverty (or raise tuition money), but as a literary work, its message overshadows the storytelling to ill effect.