Don’t let either the non-informative title of this powerful book dissuade you from considering reading it. Both are misleading. The cute guy on the cover, on the other hand, is not totally unrelated, since the protagonist happens to be one.
David Albacore is a seventeen-year-old high school senior at a new school, and his sister Barnetta (“Barney”) is a freshman. They transferred after their father murdered their mother. The father went to jail, and David and his sisters moved in with their Aunt Edie in Chicago. David didn’t even want to go back to school, but he has vowed to take care of Barney, who is still emotionally scarred from finding her mother in a pool of blood.
Barney is six feet tall, and worries she’ll never find a boyfriend. When David asks Barney why she wants a boyfriend she says:
“I just want to be normal, like everyone else. That’s why I have to have someone. A girl has to have a man or she’s nothing.”
David senses this is wrong, but doesn’t know how to respond. He knows though that his mom put up with his dad’s abuse for years because she believed she was nothing without him. He worries he can never be a substitute for the female companion Barney clearly needs, “someone who understands the things that go on inside a girl’s head.”
On his first day at the new school, he falls hard for Yolanda Dare, who happens to be the girlfriend of Malik Kaplan, the popular head of the basketball team and a “gangsta clown” as David identifies him. Even worse, Barney falls for Malik. Yolanda is often bruised, and David suspects the rough and disrespectful Malik is the cause.
David is 6’7”, fast, and strong, and was a basketball star at his previous school, but no longer has an interest in the game. The night his mother got killed, he was asleep from pain medication after showing off on the basketball court and breaking his arm. He blames basketball, and he blames himself.
David works two jobs in addition to going to school to help support his family. When he finally does start playing ball again, he is told he can get a full scholarship to college, but that’s not what he wants. The murder and his new responsibilities have changed his life. “Things that were once so all-important, like having a harem, winning the game, and being number one don’t even count anymore.” He has a dream of being a construction worker. He loves “the idea of turning a hole in the ground into something real.” He loves Yolanda too, and he desperately wants to keep Barney away from Malik.
Then his aunt has a stroke, and their family unit and all his dreams are in danger of vanishing.
This story brings up so many issues worth consideration.
We can see the different messages conveyed to this young, coming-of-age boy affecting his understanding of the roles of men and women. He is influenced by what he picks up from his experience at home; his peers; and his own sense of what is right and wrong.
His father told him that knocking around his mother was “being a man.” But David is conflicted; he loved his gentle and supportive mom, and knows that she made her whole family feel special and loved and didn’t deserve to be physically abused. He remembers the fear and sadness he and his sisters felt from seeing the violence and displays of virility by their dad.
The kids in school see relationships in terms of conquests and popularity. The recipe for success in David’s school for a male include control over girls and over their sexuality, with physical and sexual abuse not an uncommon element of that control. In fact, the story illustrates the description of much of black male culture by sociologist Bell Hooks:
“Black males, Hooks maintains, ‘often find that the assertion of sexist domination is their only expressive access to the ‘patriarchal power’ they are told all men should possess as their gendered birthright.’ She notes that ‘those heterosexual black males that the culture deems most desirable as mates and/or erotic partners tend to push a ‘dick-thing’ masculinity. They can talk tough and get rough. They can brag about disciplinin’ their woman, making sure the ‘bitch’ respects them.’” (Bell Hooks, “Seduced by Violence No More,” in Z Magazine, November 1993).
This theme is absolutely pervasive throughout Pull. While David ultimately opts for a different path, even he admits he would have been no different had his family not been decimated and dislocated. Yet there is really no discussion among the book’s characters of the “rape culture” that permeates the lives of these young people. [Hooks notes that black men who reject this culture are perceived as insufficiently masculine. She posits ruefully that women have become conditioned to equate this misogynist behavior with eroticism and desire.]
Secondly, if ever a story made a latent case for separate-sex education, this one does. In this school (as I imagine in many schools), the boys think constantly about sex (and not in PG-rated terms), and have all kinds of methods worked out to manipulate the girls into providing it. Yet those who do are referred to as “skanky ho’s” by both boys and other girls. There is a tragic dearth of respect for girls by both sexes in this book. Studies are clearly a secondary concern. And although David is now focusing on one girl instead of on accumulating a number of sexual partners, his desire for her is clearly a function of his sexual drive rather than an appreciation of the girl’s other assets (which he does, however, come eventually to appreciate), and moreover constantly interferes with his ability to concentrate on learning.
While there is not much commentary in the book about the issue of education, it seems evident to me that only those students (in this school at any rate) willing to be designated as “losers” have a chance to be future winners in the fields of academic success and achievement. The appeal of such success can be debated, since in American society it often depends on skills and cultural practices (including hair and dress) defined by the white, privileged class. Thus the main ticket out of the downward spiral that characterizes the black lower classes is considered to be “acting white” and not without justification. In spite of the myth of meritocracy that is promulgated by politicians and educators, “the playing field is already tilted in favor of those by whom and for whom it was constructed in the first place.” (Stanley Fish, “Reverse Racism, or How the Pot Got to Call the Kettle Black,” Atlantic Monthly, November 1993). I think there’s a wonderful case to be made for schools assigning this book along with one by or about Booker T. Washington (famous for his philosophy on the efficacy of an education for black achievement of economic power and full equality in every sense). The contrasting messages could generate a lot of discussion for students.
And in fact another issue raised by this book is whether or not the reader should be left to draw his or her own conclusions about the matters portrayed in this book. But I believe, for instance, that women would not choose such a self-destructive set of behaviors as are common in this story (and outlined above) unless it were extremely well engrained and opaque to easy epiphanies. And I believe that young boys, reaping at least temporarily the benefits of their egregious behaviors, have little reason to question the state of affairs.
Note however that the question of whether a “moral” should be provided is extremely controversial. Recently author Zetta Elliott interviewed Vanessa Irvin Morris on the pros and cons of “street lit,” and although this book does not fall into that category, the issues are still germane:
Zetta: How do you respond to critics who claim that street lit reinforces negative stereotypes and/or glamorizes illicit, dysfunctional behavior? Does street lit speak to the possibility of urban life, or only the (bleak) reality?
Vanessa: Negative behavior reinforces negative behavior. Literature aids in negotiating, navigating, and synthesizing life experience. Thus if the behavior is already embedded in a person or community based on life experience, literature may reflect that, but it is still the human, or community, that chooses to reinforce or evolve beyond negative behavior. Some people reading a street lit novel might say that the genre does not glamorize negative behavior. Some might say it tells it like it is. Whatever street lit is doing, I think the more important challenge is to listen to what it is saying. This contemporary phase of the genre is telling us something. … Let’s embrace these stories as a representation of an aspect of who we are as a human family whose life stories interweave across the entire spectrum of human experience, imagination, and memory. When we accept all of who we are, that is when we begin to love all of who we are, and then we are empowered to evolve. This is my view.
Dissenting views in the comments section on that post included this one by author Neesha Meminger:
“When I was a teen, there were shows I watched and books I read that glamorized self-destructive behaviours and thought patterns. I accepted those without questioning them, and dreamt of living such “exciting” experiences. I know, without a doubt, that young people now do the same with the shows they watch and the stories they read. I guess that’s where it’s important to me that young people, in particular, are offered an array of choices and representations of themselves and their surroundings.”
Other issues that have a lot of discussion potential include how to prioritize your own needs and dreams over your responsibilities and moral obligations; how to counteract peer pressure and the desire to be popular, even if it means violating a moral code; and how best to deal with loss – not only your own, but that of people with whom you are close.
Evaluation: Obviously I think this book offers a huge amount to think about and debate. I liked the characters a lot in this book, and found it to be a good read. David is complex and thoughtful and trying hard to understand what it means to be a grownup and a man. I loved the way he took care of his sister Barney. I think this book would be a great choice to assign in high schools. It would be an entertaining and provocative selection for adult book clubs as well.
Published by West Side Books, 2010