Once begun, this book is really hard to put down. The characters become close to you and you find that you root for some and detest others. The short staccato sentences burst forth on every page creating constant tension and interest.
East is not quite sixteen. For two years, he has been at his job as a watcher in The Boxes neighborhood, supervising a team that he set up to warn if danger was coming. He works for his Uncle Fin. He has been since he was ten years old. East’s mother is a drunk. She is only 31 years old. His brother Ty, his half brother is two years younger than he is, but he does not live at home. He is out on the street on his own for two years. He also works for Fin, although he does not share the same father, and Fin is not his uncle. Ty is angry and tends to be violent without any sense of conscience. He doesn’t take care of his mother, doesn’t keep in touch with East. East is more responsible. He cleans up his mom’s house and gives her money, but he rarely sleeps at home either. The brothers, diametrically opposed to each other, are estranged. While one known for being a loner, working alone without any ties, the other is known for his steadiness and fairness, for carrying out and following orders. All of these boys who were working in The Boxes for Fin are wannabe men, but they were still young, still boys. They were, however, street smart. They knew the rules of the street, and as young black kids who broke the law, they knew how to play the game to stay out of trouble with the cops.
East knows everything about The Boxes. He protects this house that Fin runs. He has trained his team well. One night, the system fails; there is a raid, a young black girl is murdered. Fin turns himself in shortly after, but not before he asks East if he will do one last job for him; he asks him to murder the judge who is a witness against Marcus, one of Fin’s boys. East has never been involved in anything like that before. Is it a test? Is it a punishment for failing at his job as a watcher and supervisor? Or, is there another reason?
The team is made up of four boys who are wannabe men. Michael, Ty, Walter, and East set out to travel from Los Angeles to Wisconsin to commit this crime for Fin. East keeps thinking about not doing it, but he follows orders and keeps on going toward that goal. Michael is bright but a brute who thinks with his fists. Walter is overweight, jovial and a follower. Ty is callous and thoughtless when he reacts. East is the stabilizer. Neither Walter nor East are the “gunners”.
This is a story of misguided young men operating with a false bravado, operating within a system that requires actions and reactions, punishment for infractions, examples to be set. Brutality is just part of the game. It keeps everyone in line. Most of them have no sense of purpose or future. Even those that do move out into the world, tend to stay within the same corrupt system after they educate themselves. It is all they know.
None of these boy/men are nice guys, essentially, they are nothing but thugs. They even prey on each other. Yet, some have goodness inside of them fighting to get out, fighting to be different. This is the story of “bad” boys everywhere. It is the story of how they become “bad boys” and how they think about life. Some of these “bad boys” are victims of circumstance. Some want to escape that life but don’t know how. East is a “bad boy” because he has been trained by his uncle to be just that. It is all he knows. His uncle is a gangster. East has no education. He has no family to fall back on except for his Uncle Fin. All he has to really depend on are his own wits. Will they be enough or will they be his downfall?
One question will be answered when the book nears the end. Why were these boys sent to do a man's job?