ISLANDS IN THE STREET: Gangs and American Urban Society by Martin Sanchez Jankowski (University of California Press: $24.95; 396 pp.). What would you do if you found yourself at the bottom of a class mountain, watching climbers ascend with the aid of fancy equipment, years of expensive lessons and, often, friends at the top. Rather than bothering to make the climb, many inner-city kids in a similar predicament would answer: "Find another sport, one in which you do not begin at a distinct disadvantage."
And so they do, in the thousands every year. The most popular sport, of course, is gang membership, and the author, a sociology professor at UC Berkeley, arrives at many insights because of his keen ability to see that the game is fundamentally an act of rebellion. He understands, for example, that gang members play with gunfire because the fear of the "social death" that comes from joining the dead-end occupations that have trapped their parents is often worse than the fear of actual death. Unfortunately, the author's stiff, repetitive prose keeps us at too much of a distance from these kids to understand why they are always saying things like, "Hey, I didn't want to grind up this guy, but I had no choice. You see, man, he messed with me."