cover image Understand This

Understand This

Jervey Tervalon, Jervey Trevalon. William Morrow & Company, $20 (271pp) ISBN 978-0-688-04560-9

The gritty reality of teenage lives in the violent caldron of urban Los Angeles is perfectly captured in this graphic, vividly realized first novel. Francois Williams sees his best friend Doug shot and killed by Doug's drug addict girlfriend Rika. Francois takes the death hard, but his girlfriend Margot takes a tougher view of Doug's demise: ``Crying over some stupid-assed woman beater, some wannabe high roller, some fool that never gave a fuck about anybody but himself.'' Margot is tough, smart and has a chance to go to college in Santa Cruz. Most of all, Margot wants to get away from the neighborhood, and Francois is not going to hold her back--``He's not what I'm about,'' she tells her English teacher, Mr. Michaels. The book's strength is not what is told but the way it's told: by a handful of characters from Rika to Francois's mother Ann and from Francois to Mr. Michaels. They speak their own minds in alternating chapters of sharp-tongued first-person narration. Individually, the voices are vibrant and personal; together, they create a dizzying mosaic of struggle and despair, promise and hopelessness. Tervalon's achievement is in creating a troubling, kaleidoscopic word picture of lives, and life, in modern-day Los Angeles. Author tour. (Feb.)