Friday, June 24, 2011

Frank Bonham's Dogtown (Part 1)

(logo for Laurel Leaf books. Their paperbacks in the 60's and 70's are also identifiable because the page edges were often painted blue).

The realistic teen novel that dealt with serious issues such as divorce, unwed pregnancies, suicide, sex and gang violence could be said to have truly begun in the 1950's. Its beginnings were much like rock and roll and boasted of rebellion, boredom, and youth with too much time on their hands. It was also a reflection of writers who grew up during the depression and were no strangers to disappointment, hard times and survival by any means possible. As pulp magazines died out, they were quickly replaced by television and mass-market paperbacks. A fiction subgenre categorized by juvenile delinquency heralded in the talents of writers such as Irving Shulman and Evan Hunter. The film Rebel Without a Cause helped popularize this sentiment, yet for a teenager to read such books was still viewed as a somewhat delinquent activity in and of itself. At the same time the books actually marketed towards teens usually dealt with safer content and were categorized less by action than strong character development. Two such excellent writers were John R. Tunis, a sports writer, and Beverly Cleary, a librarian who also wrote for younger children. Thrown into this mix were more literary titles, such as JD Salinger's The Catcher In The Rye (1951), a model for YA fiction in that it set the standard for epiphanies in coming of age fiction. Frank Bonham was a pulp writer of this generation who turned his talents to writing edgy books for teenagers in the late 1960's that dealt with social issues. His work would help bridge the gap between the grittiness of the pulpy delinquent books and the strong humor and character development in the less heavy-handed books by juvenile authors. His books would receive rave reviews and would even be used by teachers in schools, heralding in the psychologically focused young adult novels of the late 1960's aimed directly at the interest of teenagers. Much of this had to do with the Laurel Leaf Imprint of Dell books that brought together a range of such books from different publishers. These pocket books, released in inexpensive editions under a single imprint, were edited by a professor of Elementary Education at New York University and another professor from Kean College. Their efforts helped contribute to 1968 being a breakout year for young adult books with debuts by authors such as Paul Zindel, Robert Cormier and SE Hinton, to name just a few, whose classic debut books remain in print to this day.

Durango Street

Frank Bonham, born in 1914, had already established himself as a top notch Western writer with over 25 novels in print before he turned to writing books for young adults in the 1960's. He grew up in Los Angeles, where he lived most of his life. Beginning his writing career at age 20, he churned out short stories for pulp magazines, sometimes acting as a ghost writer for Ed Repp, where he learned to fill his stories with physical action. Turning to Hollywood in the 1950's, he also tried his hand at television writing and sold 12 of his scripts. His writing would prove successful enough that he would never have to hold a "real" job for his entire life and remained prolific, publishing over 60 titles, until his death in in 1989. After his death, his Western short stories had a bit of a revival, published as anthologies edited by mystery writer and pulp fiction historian Bill Pronzini.

(one of the many pulp magazines where Bonham's stories appeared)
(The Cross and the Switchblade was also adapted into a film as well as a comic book)

Durango Street is one of the first hard edged novels for young adults that dealt with gang violence and was marketed directly to teens. It is also different from its 1950's predecessors in that it dealt exclusively with minority gangs and focused on an African American character. As a noted essayist for the St. James Guide to Young-Adult Writers wrote: "Writing about a black teenager growing up and living in a ghetto was not the usual setting or model character that teenagers normally read about in the young adult books available in the early '60s. Frank Bonham was, in part, responsible for introducing social realism into young adult fiction." Durango Street would be the beginning of a series of novels that took place in the fictionalized city of Dogtown, based on Watts, and the surrounding poverty ridden communities. Published in 1965, the subject matter was so timely that ironically it was released the very same week of the Watts riots. To create the book, Bonham spent a year doing firsthand research into the Los Angeles Watts area. Bonham acknowledges that he was allowed access to agencies in the area that worked directly with juvenile gangs. He visited camps, accompanied gang members at outings, spoke with gang member's families and met with both psychologists and social workers. However, the result of Bonham's research is far different than, say, David Wilkerson's "The Cross an the Switchblade" (1963) whose purpose has more of a heavy handed objective. Instead of preachy reportage, Bonham fictionalized his facts in order to bring the reader into the complex personal life of one particular headman. He drew sympathy to social problems at large by focusing on a single character. According to Bonham, in a Horn Book essay, "I became impressed with the tremendous challenge in rehabilitating a gang boy or girl. If rehabilitation means 'to restore to a former capacity,' then it is impossible. You cannot restore a capacity one has never possessed, and these young people never had a capacity for anything but hard luck and defeat. But with sufficient patience and skill, ideas of ambition, justice, and hope can be implanted." Because Bonham's book addressed such issues directly and fulfilled this need, they were well received by kids as well as reviewers.
(a 1965 issue of Life magazine that details the Watts Riots)
The story begins as Rufus Henry is about to be released from a juvenile detention camp. He has been sent there for stealing and wrecking a car. There is a realism to the character for he appears both street smart and skeptical of advice. When he goes back home to Dogtown it's obvious from his family and surroundings that this is not the land of opportunity. His parole officer forbids Rufus to join a gang. Yet from the perspective of Rufus, joining a gang is a matter of survival.

After a quick attempt at going straight by getting a job at a car repair shop, Rufus is quickly turned off when the owner talks down to him. It becomes apparent that Rufus' main characteristic is his pride. The reader gets glimpses of this through the manner with which Rufus interacts with his siblings. Even more so, it is the way that Rufus interacts with other gang members. He is fearless.

This pride stems from Rufus being a fatherless child. As a kid his mother told him a story that his father by birth was Ernie Brown, a well known halfback in the pro football leagues. While the reader never learns for sure whether or not this is fact or fiction, Brown becomes a hero for Rufus. Just the thought of big Ernie Brown as his protector gives Rufus the ability to escape from dangerous situations. Rufus keeps a scrapbook of Ernie's achievements, but keeps it hidden. The book is a record of his hopes and dreams and he dare not let anyone know of it, lest these aspirations get smashed.

When Rufus runs into trouble with a gang, The Gassers, he is literally backed into an alley. Using his wits and a broken milk bottle to escape, he realizes that his troubles are not going to end there. Quickly he decides to meet up with the rival gang, The Moors, that he heard about through his friend "Baby" whom he met while serving time at the detention camp.

Getting membership to the gang does not prove easy though after Bantu, the gang's leader, and the others make a member by beating on him. After his parole officer finds out that Rufus has been initiated, he assigns the gang a social worker named Alex Robbins. The gang, knowing that they are dealing with the law here, reluctantly agree to meet with Robbins.

As the battle between the gangs grow more violent, Rufus overthrows Bantu in a fight, taking his place as headman. Angered after Simon, headman for the Gassers, threatens his sister, Rufus devises a plan to get revenge. First, he blows up the Gassers car and later he attempts to get some of the other rival gangs to back him up. As the violence ensues Rufus eventually secures a rifle and is intent on scaring Simon out of the neighborhood.

The story takes a turn as Robbins is able to get both the Moors and the Gassers to attend a professional football training session with Ernie Brown. Rufus is thrilled to meet Ernie yet manages to keep the father bit a secret. Simon manages to find out about his scrapbook though and eventually steals its. When he mockingly boasts of the scrapbook to Ernie, Rufus' pride is hurt and he is filled with contempt.

Finally, Rufus devises a plan to rid himself of Simon. The plan involves creating a dance, a huge event with a band and paid admission, where he will either humiliate Simon or start World War III. But with the help of Robbins, and the encouragement of Rufus' new girlfriend Judy, the dance surprisingly turns out to be a success.

At the end of the book, Rufus is still skeptical about his future but there is a notion that he may begin to see some good in Robbins' advice and may begin on the path to return to school.

Perhaps because this story seems so personal is the reason it has stood the test of time and led it to stay in print for over 30 years. In Bonham's own words, "To some extent I am a do-gooder in my books for young people, in that I often deal with a subject such as delinquency, in the hope that something I say in the book will have a positive effect on a young reader with personal problems." Three years later, with the publication of SE Hinton's The Outsiders, Durango Street would get overlooked as the essential teenage gang novel. The comparison ends there though because these works are so different and excellent alone in each of their own right. While The Outsiders is a raw tale written by a teenager, Durango Street is a researched book written by a seasoned pro. The fact that Bonham is a white writer takes nothing off of the edge that these characters are distinctly African-American. Because of Bonham's skill for writing action he is as comfortable here as he is in the Western genre. For example, he does not even shy away from his characters using the "N" word. Parts of this material may be outdated, such as the characters who try to straighten their hair, but for the most part this book maintains its edge for a modern teen audience. In many ways this book can be seen as the predecessor for films such as John Singleton's Boyz n the Hood (1991) or even the young adult novel Scorpions (1988) by Walter Dean Myers. The subject he wrote about and the questions raised by the social issues presented still remain relevant.

The Nitty Gritty (1968)

After the publication of Durango Street, Bonham would turn his talents to writing almost exclusively for young adults. He did not publish another Western novel until the 1980's. Bonham was not the only writer who followed this trend. Another example would be William Campbell Gault, a serious pulp fiction writer also from Southern California who had a successful career as a Mystery writer. In the 1960's he saw the market changing and turned to writing juvenile fiction that dealt with social issues when he could no longer sell mysteries. Like Bonham, he would later return to writing within his original genre of choice in the 1980's.

Within 3 years following Durango Street, Bonham had already published 5 more novels for young adults and would continue to publish an astounding 14 more until 1984. The Nitty Gritty may be his most well known title after Durango Street, but few of these books received multiple printings and had the long standing notoriety of the first. Still, there is no doubt that with each book, Bonham continued to hone his skills. In The Nitty Gritty, we see the writer loosening up, taking a step back from his research and delving into a highly entertaining story that may have even more emotional power than Durango Street, minus the gangs.

In this entry the tone is set in the beginning that even though poverty abounds and hard times are a coming, this is a lighter side of the Dogtown that we first saw portrayed in Durango Street. This time the story is set on Ajax Street and Charlie Matthews has dropped out of school, not to steal cars, but to shine shoes. Also, like the famous play A Raisin In the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, which is referenced in this book, this tale is set more within a struggling family unit and shows the contrast between money and dreams in a black family.

The story begins as the Matthews family gathers over dinner in their apartment. It's an apartment with rotting floors and soul food is being prepared in the kitchen. Both parents are exhausted, stressed out about their jobs and the struggle to get by. Meanwhile, their son Charlie pays little attention for he is lost in daydreams. He dreams about striking it rich, about homeless men who tip him off to buried treasure and about escaping from Dogtown. In essence, he is a kid still filled with hope despite the tired complaints of his family. Unfortunately these dreams are often shattered or quickly brought back down to earth by his tired and jaded parents. They have no complaints about him missing school as long as he's able to make a contribution to the family's funds.

Luckily there is an adult who believes in Charlie. Mr. Toia, his schoolteacher, visits the Matthews household. He attempts to talk some sense into his parents regarding having Charlie return to school. Mr. Toia recognizes Charlie as a talented writer with potential. But for his parents, college, as well as most opportunities, seem like a silly dream never to be attained here in Dogtown. Like the social worker, Robbins, in Durango Street, Mr. Toia infiltrates the family. His voice, while one of conscience, is not always obeyed.

Charlie seeks to replace his unsympathetic father with his own personal hero, his Uncle Baron. Baron is an uneducated drifter and gambler with an upbeat disposition. His adventurous stories, musical talent and freewheeling ways appear as an alternative to Charlie. For Charlie, Baron symbolizes a ticket out of Dogtown and represents an opportunity towards a better life. His Uncle's influence seems to have an even more alluring pull than an education.

When Uncle Barron unexpectedly arrives in a Volkswagon van that he has been living out of, Charlie is ecstatic. Baron tells him that he has plans to make a deal in Dogtown. Once made, he boasts, this arrangement will help him make some big money. Charlie eagerly agrees to help. When he finds out that Uncle Baron needs $150 to set his plan in motion, Charlie is determined to make this impossibility a reality.

This is where the story gets interesting. Bonham introduces a slew of quirky, eccentric characters and comedic situations that set Charlie and Baron on a series of escapades both gripping, real and right down there in the nitty gritty of things. These characters include Cowboy, a tough high school rival whose boots Charlie sets ablaze while working at the shoe shine parlor. Then, there's Breathing Man, one of Bonham's most fascinating characters that will reappear in several of his other books. Breathing Man, who sleeps sitting up and consciously counts his breaths when awake, hasn't worked in 15 years. Yet somehow he manages to survive better than most in Dogtown. Charlie seeks out Breathing Man as a wise man, a sort of ghetto sage, and Breathing Man is more than happy to impart advice.

Snapping out of his daydreams of healing the sick and being elected Mayor, Charlie decides it's time to hustle! The hustling he does outside of school includes salvaging rats, bottles and bricks from a junk lot. He also finds some treasures there. This includes $30 worth of antique coins that almost gets stolen by Cowboy, his rival (maybe a tongue-in-cheek reference to Bonham's Western books). The funniest part though, is when Charlie gets tipped off to a man who claims that he'll buy ladybugs, if he can manage to bag some from a canyon out East. Baron and Charlie take a road trip and discover a treasure trove of the tiny red and black insects. After they've captured a sackload, the critters escape in the van as they are driving back to the city. Attempting to capture them and drive at the same time creates a hilarious scenario.

Later in the story, Charlie and his friend Caeser become contenders in a ridiculous boxing match that includes animal blood and an oiled up ring. They also make some extra dollars by visiting a blood bank. Surprisingly, Charlie is able to exceed his original goal of $150. He gladly hands over this hard earned money to his great Uncle Baron while still enthusiastic about his hero's plans.

Charlie looks forward to seeing the machine that Baron has promised to purchase with his earnings. He is quickly disappointed though when he realizes the $150 has gone towards the purchase of one fighting hen. The Baron intends to gamble the money on an illegal cockfight. When the hen gets destroyed, so do Charlie's dreams. The Baron takes off leaving Charlie behind.

Back in Dogtown, Charlie must come to terms with his daydreams. He realizes that only he could chose the direction of his life and a path out of the ghetto. He cannot follow the advice of his parents or his heros. He must learn to take pride in himself.
Bonham's message is not your typical coming-of-age tale for it deals with a particular type of pride, black pride, and survival in a place of urban decay. Fortunately, Bonham infuses this story with enough energy and humor to balance out the hardship. He brings a difficult social issue to the forefront by focusing on a single character over a short period of time. The format is highly accessible and the book is one that young readers would not have trouble digesting.

The conclusion, as in Durango Street, remains open for the reader to decipher. Bonham does this by presenting the story in a realistic open-ended manner. The situations are so tight, so fully realized and the characters so engaging that reading this book brings to mind images of some lost blaxploitation cinema classic penned by a pulp giant while still maintaining a PG rating. It's also a book with rhythm that maintains a language that is both soulful and unpretentious. In my opinion, it's an even greater work than Durango Street and even the clever chapter titles give this one a zing. One of the chapter headings, Hey Big Spender, Bonham would later use for another title of his books set in Dogtown.
Hey, Big Spender! (1972)

In Hey, Big Spender! Frank Bonham takes readers on their wildest ride yet through Dogtown. This time around the book's main character is Cool Hankins (who appears in several other of the Dogtown books as well including the Golden Bees of Tulami -1974). Like his name, 17 year old Cool is just that. He wears blue glasses, a floppy hat and walks around confidently with a bounce in his step. Unlike Bonham's other characters, Cool seems more free, first driving a Buick around Dogtown and later a Harley. Actually, when I read this book, I can't seem to get the images of movies like The Monkey Hu$tle (1976) out of my mind. It's just got that same sort of funky rhythm to it minus the cheesiness. Despite the ease with which this character gets around, life remains difficult and this is represented by the foster home he lives in with several other children and his Aunt. Like a big brother, Cool is full of heart and gets by through being familiar with the people and being aware of the hard times around him.

The story begins as Cool is working a summer job doing odd gardening chores. He is approached by Monique, his feminist counterpart, who alerts him that Breathing Man was in the hospital and wants to see him. Breathing Man, whose character had an important role in The Nitty Gritty, reappears here as an even more interesting character. He is still Dogtown's wise man and doing just fine without working while seated outside all day in front of the Hob Nob Pool Parlor. In winter evenings Breathing Man lives under the 4th Street Bridge. Come summer you can find his home hidden amongst a mass of underground storm drains. Cool thinks of him as a friend and agrees to see him.

Upon their meeting outside the Hob Nob, Breathing Man offers Cool a job. At first Cool takes this as a put-on. Later, when he is handed a hundred dollar bill, his mind begins to sway. He agrees to meet Breathing Man in his underground hideaway in order to discuss his secret plan. Breathing Man draws him a map while Cool remains skeptical.

On his trip through the storm drains Cool encounters a community of subterranean hippies who avoid the hardships of Dogtown by staying out of the daylight. Then he finds Breathing Man living alone in his neat, minimalist alcove. Breathing Man explains that he is the inheritor of the Le Duke fortune which pretty much makes him the richest black man that ever lived. Cool doesn't know what to believe but when Breathing Man shows him a safe stacked with 100 dollar bills, he is convinced. It turns out that the inheritance totals over 650,000 dollars. The prospect of inheriting this amount frightens Breathing Man, for he believes any sort of excitement could be bad for his health. So much so, that it might kill him. What he would like to do is "do right" by giving the money away to those in need. This, however, creates a dilemma. He does not want to give the money to a charity for he believes it will go to waste being divided amongst salaries of those who work for such organizations. Instead, he wants to give the money - in cash - directly to the people in Dogtown who need it most; to the people that the system has not been able to help. He has chosen Cool to act as a middleman because he knows the kid, trusts hims and believes he has lots of heart.

Cool is wise to the fact that this is too big a job for just one kid to handle. Regardless, because of Breathing Man's trust, and because he offers Cool a hundred a week, he reluctantly agrees. Cool is also supplied with a brand new custom chrome-plated Harley Davidson motorcycle with the word HOPE painted on the tank. This way, he could deliver the goods in style! Cool quickly sets up shop by renting a store front and advertising "FREE Money" on a handmade sign taped up in the window. Both the landlord and his friends are surprised when he attempts to explain the nature of his business, keeping Breathing Man's identity anonymous. Confused, his friend remarks "If it's free, it isn't money. And if it's money, it isn't free..."

The way it works is this: People line up outside, cool lets them in one by one, listens to their hard luck stories and takes notes on small cards. At night he visits Breathing Man where he shares the stories and Breathing Man picks a winner. One for each day of the week. He then gives the requested amount to Cool who makes the deliveries. Upon opening day there is only one visitor. It's a down and out white man named Snow in need of a set of tools to get his life back on track. Breathing Man kindly agrees to help Snow, despite his race.

News spreads quickly though and soon things begin to get out of hand. Monique acts as Cool's assistant. She attempts to organize the crowds that begin to line up outside of the door to the small shop. Cool takes on the role of a social worker. He listens to all the horrible tales of woe and tries to weigh in on who has it worst. It's never an easy decision. Nevertheless, money does get delivered and Cool quickly picks up the nickname "Big Spender".

What follows are not only hard decisions but also trouble. Cool has a run-in with a man who might be his unwelcome and estranged father. Then, he is threatened by Rat-Ass, a chain-twirling leader of a motorcycle gang. Soon Cool is racing for his life while being chases by a Hell's Angels group and ducking into storm drains on his Harley. All the time Cool keeps his wits about him and survives by creating an oil slick that wipes out both Rat Ass an his bike. The trouble doesn't end there though. The biker gang gets its revenge by firebombing Cool's bike and nearly setting the foster home ablaze.

The final straw comes when Snow returns to the free money office drunk and asking for more help. This convinces Cool that while Breathing Man's intentions are good, this might not actually be helping at all. Disappointment sets in until Cool's aunt comes up with an alternate solution. This is where Bonham's philosophy comes into play. It is decided that if people in Dogtown need help, they need it early on.

A consideration is made to help the hundreds of homeless children living in the slum. This would be done by setting them up in foster homes where at least they'd be given a chance. It's obvious that this is a social cause close to Bonham's heart. He makes it clear not through being didactic but by being a pioneer in bringing such subjects to the forefront. Once again, he does this through creating an entertaining story in an accessible format aimed towards youth. Hey, Big Spender! is a triumph on all accounts.

(image from the film The Monkey Hu$tle from 1976). Not related to Bonham's book, but the visuals have a similar feel to me).

Other Dogtown novels include: Viva Chicano, Cool Cat, Chief, The Golden Bees of Tulami. It is my intention to write about these books in a separate blog entry.

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