Monday, September 12

Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff

by Walter Dean Myers  
Viking Penguin  1975

A collection of vignettes of teen life in Harlem, though occasionally dated in language and setting, still as bold and authentic sounding as probably was back in the day.  

Francis, aka Stuff, moves to 115th street he finds the local kids wary of the newcomer until he proves his stuff (or lack thereof) on the basketball court. The good-natured humility test passes as a sort of ritual and Stuff is accepted as one of the gang.  

In the collected stories of Stuff recounts tales of broken homes, parental death, drug abuse, and several trips to the jail that echo the prejudices of the day. They also concoct crazy schemes – like dressing up a boy as a girl to enter a dance contest thinking they won't get caught – that rings with the sort of head-shaking humor that truly is kids being kids. The kids also experience the honesty and brutal truth of parents just trying to get by, and to that end they come together as a club that calls itself the Good People who vow to be there for one another. There aren't unrealistic heroics here, and no heavy moralizing either, simply stories of inner-city life told matter-of-fact and dialog heavy that show kids trying to sort out the world for themselves.   


I had the opportunity to hear Walter Dean Myers speak this past summer and it was fascinating to hear him talk about how he progressed from a short story writer to a novelist and how he didn't really concern himself with plot structure while writing Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff. This may explain part of its appeal and freshness on this current reread, because each of the "chapters" stands as a sort of freestanding story that builds on information from previous stories. Characters come and go and eventually a few threads pull together to reinforce a hard message about community support can only help those who are willing and open to the offer of help. What's refreshing is that the kids already know and articulate the messages the book delivers, long before the book delivers them, so instead of feeling hammered by what happens there's a sadness to the events that weighs on the reader just as it weighs on the kids.

It was also nice to see a novel-length collection of stories that meandered at a comfortable pace through their own time. The self-contained nature of the chapters allows for readers to take a break and reflect if they want or to plunge ahead and see 'what happens next" to Stuff and his crew. The over effect becomes a series of shorter pieces that might, these days, might be extended into larger novels and strung together as a series. So often what I hear people say about series is that they love the characters and want to know more about what they do next, but far too often I find myself impatient with series titles because they seem to have been plotted to draw out the narrative in order to justify their continuing adventures in subsequent volumes.

What Myers does, inadvertently by his account, is give us sketches of characters who grow with each story and expand our knowledge as we go. It is probably possible to take these sketches and better integrate them into a single, more unified narrative which would give the story an overall master effect that would do more to draw attention to the author than the story. This is actually a fairly large problem I have with first-person point-of-view middle grade novels where the author's mannered style or carefully knotted plot gives the story more of a deliberate literary feel and less a sense character verisimilitude. 

So huzzah for Walter Dean Myers and his innocence in crafting a novel with more heart and soul than structure and self-consciousness.


Tiny note about the current cover I see circulating these days, not the one above: It has the silhouette of a boy blowing a trumpet with the city in the background. That's all well and good but Stuff plays a saxophone, people, and after previous covers were clear to include a sax if baffles me as to why they would change it. One of the stories begins with the boys headed into town to get a new reed for Stuff's sax but then they end up in jail. There's no reason I could see why these later editions would change the text (so he could go buy a new trumpet mouthpiece?) so I can't understand why they would do this and I sincerely hope that the next chance they get the publishers return to the sax. Or, as the original paperback cover had, the kids hanging out on the stoop.

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