April 2004

Damien Weaver

fiction

B-More Careful by Shannon Holmes

The third sentence of this book is "Netta pierced her eyes on a startling event transpiring in her alleyway." That may strike you as bad writing. The misused verb may pierce you. Let's get this out of the way: Spelling, grammar and punctuation of an Internet fanfic. The book's in patois, just close enough to standard English to rile your inner William Safire, close enough that you could mistake its dialect for illiteracy. Why bother? This isn't word salad, an angry prank a la Kathy Acker or the more obscurantist Gertrude Stein, but a lively tale told in an argot close to what many of us (to say nothing of our teenagers) speak every day. Labeling aggressive non-conformity ignorance and dismissing the book out of hand overlooks the internal consistency of the language and the author's effectiveness in telling a story.

B-More Careful is in the living idiom. As with Irvine Welsh's "scheme" novels, the early pages will challenge readers who are unfamiliar with the slang used. There's nothing subtle about Shannon Holmes's characters or their motivations, though, making it easy to settle for a close gist and suss meanings from context. Holmes's prose has a flow to it, a momentum, and after a couple adjustment chapters the phonetic spellings and unusual phrasings cease to be distracting, allowing focus on the storycraft of a provocative, problematic book that will both reward and frustrate readers.

Shannon Holmes's B-More Careful is what's variously called "street lit" or "ghetto lit." It's a literature that lives and dies in the marketplace, the Objectivist's dream. Bypassing traditional publishers (and agents and distributors and spellcheck programs), sold at flea-markets and out of the trunks of cars, B-More Careful is a free-market success. How does it hold up as a novel? It can be hard to distinguish the book's strengths from its missteps. Set in the worst neighborhoods of Baltimore, the bulk of B-More Careful follows three characters: two female friends, Netta and Mimi, and a man named Black. It isn't about them in the way novels usually are; B-More seems to be more about its own milieu, about relationships and their catastrophic failures in the context of the trife life.

Holmes introduces characters with exhaustive backstories. We barely meet the book's major players before we're sent back to the womb with them, one after another, for the highlights of their upbringings and early days. Holmes plays chutes and ladders with time, backwards and forwards, giving us glimpses of the future before backtracking decades to an inciting or merely consonant incident in a character's past, leaving cliffhangers in the present (or future) for chapters at a time. B-More is a novel of gunplay, murder, and revenge, but because of its structure it doesn't build suspense in the manner of a conventional thriller. The book's narrative tensions, two major conflicts and countless smaller ones within them, are approached and resolved in the vocabulary of violence, in the climate of crime, but are at their root almost entirely interpersonal, predicated on familial, romantic or mentoring relationships gone wrong.

The focus on backgrounds and emotions, loyalties, loves, and actions as reflective of patterns established in childhood is key to the book's larger effect. Just as HBO's The Sopranos might be considered a soap opera whose characters happen to have Mafia ties, the primary subject of B-More Careful is the interplay between faith and betrayal. There are brief, plentiful action set-pieces, staged with a matter-of-fact tone, but the bloodshed, money, and drug wars don't have the heft or resonance of the characters' quests for love, trust and acceptance. In this sense, B-More is an eccentric gangsta-rap offshoot of the smooth-jazz urban relationship genre exemplified by the work of Eric Jerome Dickey or Carl Weber (who himself recently jumped aboard the street lit bandwagon with a new imprint, Urban Books, promising "the drama and grit of inner-city life... writers who tell it like it is").

A plot synopsis of B-More calls to mind Yxta Maya Murray's 1998 debut Locas, which, though set in L.A. and concerning Chicanas rather than black women, also examines the choices facing girls coming of age in a gang environment by tracking two contrasted characters: one a mother, the other childless, one a grasping, insecure mess, the other increasingly ruthless and powerful. The similarities are superficial. Though Locas is in first person, alternating between the two protagonists, the third-person narration of B-more feels closer to its characters, so close the rest of the world is eclipsed. This is not an asset; B-More lacks Murray's rich descriptive writing (opening Locas at random: "...overhead on the powerlines there was some bad-luck crow birds waiting in a row, them caw-caw blue-black shits picking under their feathers and looking down over Manny...") and for all its fierce regionalism, the details of Baltimore's physical environment remain blank, the alleys, stash houses and clubs generic. B-More is less self-consciously literary than Locas, and aspires only to spin an involving story. At its worst, it descends to anecdote. In B-More there is no right or wrong, no morality, only event. Holmes refuses to pass any judgment beyond that of the streets.

The streets are important. "The streets," used colloquially, comprise the undifferentiated wash of criminality and misery that's both the book's backdrop, flowing through its plot and housing projects, and a Greek chorus, a many-eyed, many-mouthed monster that grovels to the strong and devours the weak or weakening. The streets are always watching... They watch every character's decisions, they watch how the wicked are or aren't punished, and most of all they watch the lives of promising young black men and women spiral out of control.

Sometimes the spiral is upwards, into dizzying stratospheres of material excess, empires of luxury brand-name decadence built Yertle-the-Turtle style on an uneasy stack of middlemen, runners, and treacherous aspirants. Usually, though, and at least in the streets of B-More, inevitably, the spiral is downwards, to violent death at the hands of criminal and/or romantic rivals, to prison terms, or into the morass of addiction, the failure of the urban multitudes on which the (fleeting) success of the few is founded.

The author's voice is confident, her slang and aphorisms those of her characters. Aside from one pointed observation of linguistic difference -- a bigshot NYC dealer is annoyed by the Baltimorean affect of ending sentences with "yo," -- the narrator is as steeped in the story and its specific language as the characters. The immersion in Baltimore's street life is total, with the Virgil guiding us through this underworld so manifestly of it, but the downside is textual homogeneity. Especially in the long middle section things begin to blend, to blur: the voices, the histories, and even the chronology lose their sharpness, become unmoored from context, and we end up adrift in a river of shouts, threats and cries, of violence and doom, anguish and hardship looped, remixed, repeated, a punishing concatenation of gruesome deeds done to and by angry people in a slough that seems to allow no other course of action.

The book is exciting, if you have the imagination to fill in the descriptive blanks. It does hit hard, and while it isn't always vivid in the particulars, the characters behave believably and the author is in secure control of the twists and turns. The strangeness of the book, at least in relation to a conventional novel, is represented well by the bizarre afterword, a rambling poem by publisher Teri Woods. It's an astonishing self-indulgence on the part of Ms. Woods, made moreso by its final line: "Motherfuckers, I am the light."

One imagines Louis-Ferdinand CÚline, his loathing and resentment of publishers unsurpassed among authors, clawing in deathless rage at the interior of his coffin. How dare Teri Woods? Well, how dare Shannon Holmes pen a novel with such disregard for formal English? How dare literary entrepreneurs serve their readers directly, eschewing big publishing houses? How dare we enjoy it?

B-More Careful by Shannon Holmes
Meow Meow Productions
ISBN: 0967224918
279 Pages