Early Gangbanger Fiction

by Mark Kleiman

Just finished reading (re-reading, actually) a book about a young man who starts out in life with almost no money, no job, no job-relevant education, and an active aversion to honest labor. His only assets are a deadly weapon and a determination that anyone who fails to treat him with what he considers proper respect will pay for it in blood.

Eager to achieve membership in one of the two gangs of armed thugs who between them terrorize the peaceful citizens of a great city, he challenges three of its respected members to fights to the death. When their affray is interrupted by members of the rival gang, he joins with the three he was about to fight, and together they kill one of their assailants and leave three others seriously wounded. That makes the four of them inseparable friends from then on.

The rest of the book is largely a description of their cheerful conversation and their murderous and erotic exploits. Eschewing any actual work as socially degrading, the protagonist and his three friends live mainly off the money they get from various lady-loves. The story ends with the ritualized killing of the former wife of one of the four (who, in the narrative past of the book, had already strangled her and left her for dead but apparently had failed to complete the job) in revenge for her having poisoned the young protagonist's favorite among his girlfriends (she is also the wife of his landlord).

As a measure of how far moral degradation can go, the author presents the four central characters as charming, brave, and admired, encouraging the reader to identify with them without at all concealing the reality of their mercenary promiscuity and their commitment to violence as a way of life.

I expect William Bennett to have a word or two to say to the author, whose delicate ear for dialogue and superb narrative gifts cannot conceal the ethical rottenness that lies at the heart of The Three Musketeers. I suppose we should have expected nothing better from a Frenchman, but M. Dumas should be ashamed of himself.

(Yes, that was supposed to be a joke; I actually admire The Three Musketeers extravagantly as political fiction, and Dumas's trick of making the Cardinal the actual hero of the book (check out his last scene with D'Artagnan) while convincing juvenile readers of all ages that he's the bad guy is really pretty impressive. (Shakespeare does the opposite trick—much better, of course—in Henry V, but I always admire that particular form of irony when someone brings it off.)

But it is astonishing to recall an age when it was rich—or at least nobly-born—adolescents and young adults who made a lifestyle out of killing one another over minor affronts. Any theory that derives violence directly from deprivation needs to take that phenomenon into account.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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