Title: "Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in...

BOOK BRIEFS

March 13, 1994|By TIM WARREN Title: "Flat Rock Journal: A Day in the Missouri Ozarks" Author: Ken Carey Publisher: Harper San Francisco Length, price: 224 pages, $18 | TIM WARREN Title: "Flat Rock Journal: A Day in the Missouri Ozarks" Author: Ken Carey Publisher: Harper San Francisco Length, price: 224 pages, $18,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Title: "Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America"

Author: Nathan McCall

Publisher: Random House

Length, price: 404 pages, $23 This book had a "buzz" surrounding it long before publication. The story line is irresistible: A young man grows up on the streets of Portsmouth, Va., gets involved in street life and turns to crime -- first petty, then more serious -- as a way of life.

The author, Nathan McCall, gets involved in drug dealing, and guns. He shoots a guy. Then he robs a McDonald's. He serves three years of a 12-year sentence for armed robbery. He goes to journalism school after getting out of prison in 1978 and works for a series of newspapers. Now he is a reporter at the Washington Post, a successful journalist who cannot escape his past -- nor does he want to.

Mr. McCall knows firsthand the anger that has driven many black young men in America, and as he nears the age of 40, he still feels it. He grieves for the young black men he sees today, "a younger, meaner generation out there now -- more lost and alienated than we were, and placing even less value on life."

This is all powerful stuff. But though "Makes Me Wanna Holler" is often moving and compelling, it is at the end curiously empty.

The problem is that the portion of "Makes Me Wanna Holler" that deals with his street and prison life -- about 60 percent of the book -- is far more compelling than his life since being released from prison in February 1978. Mr. McCall does a terrific job of describing his early years, how he and his buddies looked around and figured that no way, no how would they follow the safe and scared way of life their working-class parents had chosen.

But when he was released from prison, Nathan McCall would have more than 15 years ahead of him. For "Makes Me Wanna Holler" ultimately is about redemption -- how a young man stared down at a potentially meaningless life and decided he could not give up. He could not give in to racism, or his own anger at it.

This, potentially, would be the strongest part of such a book, but I felt a noticeable drop in the narrative once Mr. McCall began writing about his post-prison days. It wasn't for lack of trying -- he writes about confronting earlier feelings of hatred toward whites and sexism toward black women. But though he is reflective, he doesn't dig out enough -- and he too often resorts to glib observations about the people and situations that troubled him.

Still, "Makes Me Wanna Holler" is disturbing, in the best sense. If it is not a classic American autobiography, it is an important one. There is an inescapable wall of anger confronting the country these days, and this book helps explain why. Ken Carey communicates intimately with the trees and animals sharing his 80 acres in the Missouri Ozarks. A pine tree provides a vision of loggers, a raven explains bird consciousness. For the skeptics among us, much of "Flat Rock Journal," Mr. Carey's chronicles of the extreme joys and hardships of rural life, may seem a little hundy-gundy. But for those interested in the spiritual aspects of nature, this book is a real find.

Ken Carey's modesty, kindness and intelligence emanate so gracefully from every page that even if you don't believe all he says, there is much to be learned from the man himself. And he can write:

"The sun will not shine again at this angle until this precise minute of the hour one year from today. But conditions that day are not likely to duplicate this same amount of humidity, this same cloud pattern or air temperature. This is the first time I have walked this path, the first time I have seen these trees."

Another wonderful aspect of "Flat Rock Journal" is the surprising humor. In one section, Mr. Carey, having been in the woods for a long time, absent-mindedly sharpens his chain saw on a public bus. State troopers are called.

At the heart of "Flat Rock Journal" is one man's reverence for the miraculous nature of life, a reverence that flows as sweet and clear as the Ozark spring water he so lovingly describes.

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