Sunday, May 14, 2006

Bucking the Sarge

Bucking the Sarge by Christopher Paul Curtis. Read by Michael Boatman. (Listening Library)

This is the second in a series of audiobook reviews I want to share with you. This book is a witty and ironic look at life in contemporary black America that readers of all races can enjoy. For all the laughs, however, there's a serious message to this book. The message seems to be that a corrupt social and economic system--in many cases created and maintained by black people themselves--allows blacks to oppress and exploit other blacks and deny opportunity to all but the most creative and talented African Americans.

Fifteen-year-old Luther T. Farrell lives amid the urban, post-industrial decline of a predominantly black neighborhood in present day Flint, Michigan. Yet Luther is not the typical African-American teen. He is going for his third consecutive win in his middle school science fair, and his life's ambition is to be "America's Best-Known and Best-Loved Philosopher." Embarrassed by a grade school incident in which he mispronounced the name of Socrates, Luther always precedes his borrowed pearls of wisdom with, "A well-known philosopher--whose name escapes me at the moment--once said . . ."

The only obstacle to victory in the science fair is Shayla "I See Dead People" Patrick, the daughter of Flint's most prosperous African-American undertaker, also a straight A student, and the woman Luther has both loved and hated since they were both four years old. In true Tracy-Hepburn fashion, Luther and Shayla are crazy about each other, but dare not admit it, and can't be in the same room together without sparks flying. Luther carries an unused condom in his wallet in case romance should break out, but it looks as though the condom (named Chauncey because it's come to seem like an old friend) will languish in obscurity.

The only obstacle to Luther going on to college and truly starting his philosophical career is his mother--aka "The Sarge." She's a cold, calculating, avaricious woman, who through iron will and ruthless determination has risen from factory worker to school teacher to slum lord, running loan shark rackets, substandard housing projects, and group homes all over the city. She's bilking the system for all it's worth, charging the government for the cost of steak and shrimp, being reimbursed, buying the cheapest food possible for the group homes, and pocketing the difference. Luther has been the "manager" of one of these group homes since he was thirteen, and the Sarge has no intention of releasing him from servitude.

When Luther realizes that his science project--a report on the illegal use of lead-based paint in low-income housing in Flint--has the potential to bring about his mother's downfall, he feels both regret and fear. Regret because The Sarge is, after all, his mother. Fear because The Sarge is, after all, The Sarge. She's not going to be happy that her own son has blown the whistle on her and destroyed her profitable little empire. When Luther discovers that The Sarge has been siphoning off money intended for his college fund, however, he decides to take action and creates his own unique plan for revenge.

Does the Sarge get what's coming to her? Does Luther admit his true feelings to Shayla and vice versa? Does Chauncey see some action? You'll have to read the book. The author's rather blasé attitude about teen sex, and Luther's desire for revenge against his own mother may seem morally problematic to some listeners, but let's face it--they're realistic. What teenager doesn't think about sex, and with today's oversexed, "just use protection" culture, it's easier than ever to turn teen fantasy into reality. And the Sarge is a witch, after all. She's a corrupt authority figure, and the human sense of justice naturally wants to see corrupt authority brought down.

This story is told with so much humor and with tongue so thoroughly in cheek that it's hard to be truly offended by some morally questionable attitudes. There are memorable minor characters such as Luther's best friend Sparky, Marcel the fence and his pit bull Poofy, the shyster lawyer Dante Orlando Gatty (call 1-800-SUE-EM-ALL), and Darnell Dixon, "one of Flint's leading psychopaths." This book makes you laugh and think, and parents and teens may even want to talk about it after listening. Recommended.

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