Ernest Hill's 'A Life for a Life': Death, snapshots

August 23, 1998|By Harold Jackson | Harold Jackson,SUN STAFF

"A Life for a Life," by Ernest Hill. Simon and Schuster. 240 pages. $23. I don't read novels much anymore. This new book by Ernest Hill reminded me why. Sometimes people who think they have something important to say ought to just say it. Their storytelling is so flawed that it detracts from any greater message that their fictional characters are trying to convey.

Even if Hill intended "A Life for a Life" to be merely entertaining, not enlightening, there are too many holes in his story.

His tale of a young thug who is transformed into a successful college student by the father of a boy he has murdered is plausible.

But not the way Hill tells it.

Most of the story is set in a small town in Louisiana, where two brothers, one 15, the other 10, go inside an air-conditioned cafe, Kojak's Place, to briefly escape summer's heat.

Kojak's Place apparently is one of those "jook joints" of African-American lore where you can get "whatever you want."

It's the kind of place adults go when they want to forget responsibilities like their job, a spouse, or little crumb-snatching children.

But maybe - since this is a place where anything goes - maybe none of the imbibing grown-ups would object to the presence of "Little Man," the younger boy.

Maybe a woman with "too short cutoff jeans" and a "crop top that exposed her voluptuous breasts" would entice a 10-year-old into a back room to share a pipe of crack cocaine with her. There's all kinds of depravity in this world.

But Hill loses me when he has the woman's drug-peddling brother, club owner Kojak, burst into the room, hit the boy upside the head with a whiskey bottle, and threaten to murder the child unless he pays $100 for the crack.

Real-life pushers use the same marketing schemes as toothpaste and detergent manufacturers to reel in new customers. They have been known to give away crack to first-time users.

Why would Kojak risk the police attention to his business that the murder of a child would bring? His fury must have gone beyond the loss of a few $5 hits of crack. But it's never explained.

Hill details the rescue of Little Man by his brother, D'Ray. He explains how D'Ray killed a teen-age store clerk in a robbery to get Kojak's $100. But then his book becomes a series of disjointed snapshots.

There's not enough narrative to convince you that a 15-year-old running away from the law could within weeks become a feared pimp with a stable of whores.

We learn how an apprehended D'Ray beat up the toughest guy in prison. But how did he handle challenges thereafter?

The special relationship between D'Ray and the father of his victim is kissed off with a few paltry chapters that don't adequately depict how the two could overcome a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to friendship.

Hill's book is too skimpy. His dialogues in black English are about as revealing about life in a rural Southern town as watching a rerun episode of TV's "In the Heat of the Night."

Harold Jackson, an editorial writer for The Sun since 1995, has been a reporter for United Press International, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Birmingham Post-Herald, and the Birmingham News. He won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1991 and is a journalist in residence at Loyola College.

Pub Date: 8/23/98

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