Here on the AB4T blog, we provide timely reviews of new books. But I have also opened up the blog to the reviewers to write about a relevant topic or book outside those guidelines. Amy Cheney is a librarian at the Alameda County Library Juvenile Justice Center in California. She is particularly interested in marginalized books and authors that are relevant to her population. Recently, she asked if she could review a book that made a huge impact on her, but was published in 2009. I said, well, not officially. But why not write a blog post about it? From Amy:
There are books and authors that defy categorization. Jarid Manos is an ex-drug dealing gay black person of Moorish descent who is currently an environmental activist. Or, as he says in his memoir Ghetto Plainsman (Temba Press, 2009), “….here I was, an inner-city urban tattooed muscled ex-drug dealer homeboy thug hypersensitive vegetarian animist homosexual cyclist rural outback plainsman who could sleep on a subway train while keeping his outer “Watchman” self on alert, who also knew the curls of buffalo grass and the smell of an active prairie dog burrow from ten feet away and was able to return cross-country through the blackest night eight miles back to the nearest road.” (page 404).
Where does this belong? Who is the audience? I was faced with these questions when I found out Jarid Manos was going to be in the Bay Area speaking at a nearby bookstore and, after reading his book, was compelled to find other venues for him. As an African American and an ex-drug dealer, he is a prime example of a writer I would bring in to speak with my teens in detention. Would my teens want to read this book? Who else would want to read it? In some ways – in many ways – we all do.
The book does not appear to have been reviewed in the mainstream press, and yes, at times I thought it could use better editing. But then again, the book is allowed its range, and Jarid’s voice is like that of the canary in the coal mine gently lighting and touching upon a great many vital topics; the build up of tension and overall impact is immense and profound. I can’t stop thinking or feeling about it, and other blurbs say the same.
The first 100 or so pages contains sordid and horrific details of self hatred along with equally horrific details of the madness and destruction of earth and animals. Stalked by predators — the principal at his school, riding his bike, trying to use a public restroom — Manos struggles with his alientation and homosexuality, trying to ignore his feelings for other men. Deeper into the book, desperate for survival as well as connection, he has unsafe sex as well as prostitutes himself. Within a few pages one reads about the details of his ghetto apartment — roaches running onto his naked legs, no hot water, a neighbor who buys live chickens to eat, the sounds of drug dealers and beer cans rolling in the street, his hatred and rage at people, the Exxon Valdez spill, the uprising in Tiananmen Square, his job at a restaurant, and a beach he is on in Greece. It’s not linear, until it is, until the narrative becomes absolutely crystal clear: this is about a lost soul. Someone who feels SO DEEPLY what is happening on the planet and is so impacted by its destruction that he is caught in the destruction himself and desperately seeking a way out of it.
The reader becomes engaged in his narrative because we are all alienated and adrift. We are all desperate, we are all lonely, we all feel the destruction of the earth and we are all participating in it — our own destruction — on one level or another. Once the reader is involved in the story it is almost impossible to put down. Manos is able to convey these feelings of longing and despair in such a visceral and immediate way it keeps us reading, brings tears to the eyes and nightmares of the murdering of prairie dogs at night.
Managing drug deals from afar, he travels to Europe, he travels West, wandering on the destroyed landscape with little to eat or drink, sleeping under trees, trying to find a place of refuge, wilderness, of wildness left on the Great Plains – anywhere – somewhere. We keep reading because we need to find out if he makes it, if there is any hope, if there is any redemption – on the personal or global level.
Fortunately, he did indeed make it out from the streets to found and direct the Great Plains Restoration Council “Serving our Youth, Protecting our Prairie Earth.”
Manos visited my youngsters yesterday, and they were able to relate to his story even while having few answers or information about his questions such as: What is an ecosystem? What does sacred mean? Why should we care about prairie dogs? What is the similarity between invading species of plants and invading other people’s lands? What would it feel like if the police helicopters in the ghetto are actually shooting at you like is happening to the coyote in the Great Plains, the wolves in Alaska, the buffalo right outside our National Parks? While I know my reluctant readers aren’t going to make it through the book, a few of them asked if they could go to Texas to help. Many devastated, angry, fed up and pissed off youth are going to love this book and even carry it around as their Bible for change.
As I said, the book defies categorization, mirroring how the violence and destruction of the earth is about connecting us all — through all of our “categories” to caring about ourselves and the planet. The closest readalikes might be a cross between a depressing and/or introverted version of the Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey (Harper Perennial, 2006) and a classic such as Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown. Find out more about Manos’ work at http://www.gprc.org/
Full bibliographic information: Manos, Jaird. Ghetto Plainsman. 442p. Temba Press. 2009. $19.95. 978-0-9668413-4-3