This is not a book about police and children in America's big cities. No middle-class, upper-class or even moderately well-off children are to be found. The police are not Officer Friendly types dispensing care and concern. "The Ville" is about black kids in the violent ghettos of Brownsville and East New York, and the police charged with upholding the law in an almost lawless land.
This is familiar territory. A forest of trees has fallen to publish countless books, newspaper and magazine stories about the ghetto. Gangsta rap, real-life cop shows and the news offer glimpses of this world.
Greg Donaldson, who has taught in Brooklyn and now teaches reading at New York City Technical College, spent two years in the outland of Brownsville and East New York, watching from both sides, trying to, as he writes in his preface, "catch the soul of a community."
He has not.
He takes the position of a fly on the wall, making it impossible for him to capture the soul. The distance between subject and writer is too much. He traces one year in the lives of Sharron Corley, a young man who lives in the Ville, and Gary Lemite, a housing officer who patrols the area's fearsome housing projects.
Although there are two-parent families in the ghetto and children who succeed, Mr. Donaldson, like others before him, ignores those stories. The fault could lie as much with him as with American publishing. The country's fascination is with those living on the edge, those who best exemplify what has gone so terribly wrong in America's ghettos.
Thankfully, Mr. Donaldson has not focused on a headline-stealing drug- or gun-boy. Sharron Corley is a talented young man trying to make his way. He dreams of being a singer, works when he can, steals to get the fine clothes he wants, robs to eke out a measure of respect, does six months in jail for his small-time crime. While at Riker's Island, he learns the child he had by his 15-year-old girlfriend has died.
Here Mr. Donaldson's approach keeps the reader at a distance. This happens throughout, especially when he is recounting highly emotional events. People die in this book. Three children are shot dead during the academic year at Thomas Jefferson High School.
Yet these deaths lack an emotional impact.
The book is crammed with too many people. We don't get to know them. Their fates drift across the page, often without comment from the major characters, whose lives never intersect.
The emotional distancing also keeps us from really seeing into the heart of Gary Lemite, who suffers through a separation from his white wife and children.
Yes, Mr. Donaldson has fulfilled his promise to "tell it the way it is," but he has not conveyed how it feels. To say the book reads like today's headlines is both a compliment and an indictment. It tells us what is happening, sometimes even why it is happening. But you are kept at arm's length.
Often, he leaves his central characters at crucial points. The thread is lost, picked up, then lost again. The practice is annoying.
Equally annoying is Mr. Donaldson's flitting in and out of the minds of his subjects. It's an inherent problem with this type of nonfiction, which appropriates elements of fiction.
Mr. Donaldson says everything he tells us really happened, then tells us names were changed, locations disguised, the time-frame shifted to fit his narrative. You can accept his going into the minds of the main characters, but how does he know what a young girl thinks when she looks at Sharron, or what two boys think as Sharron walks by? Did he ask them?
What's also missing is a sense of moral outrage, not only at society for allowing the Ville to exist, or at those who have taken to crime to survive, but also at those who benefit from keeping Brownsville the way it is. The whites who help foster the drug trade are not mentioned or held accountable. No connection is made between them and the black man who dies fighting for a piece of the crack cocaine trade.
Neither are solutions offered. This is especially distressing. Any intelligent reader already knows America's late 20th-century ghettos are hells on earth. The question now is what can or should be done.
Mr. Donaldson, our fly on the wall, is not concerned with questions or answers. He wants to tell it like it is, which is one reason his book falls flat.
Perhaps he should have taken to heart the question on Sharron Corley's bedroom door: "What are your suggestions? We'd like to know."
M. Dion Thompson is deputy chief of the Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun.
Title: "The Ville: Cops and Kids in Urban America"
Author: Greg Donaldson
Publisher: Ticknor & Fields
+!Length, price: 401 pages, $22.95