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We Are Your Future : SMOKED: A True Story About the Kids Next Door, By Leon Bing (Harper Collins: $22; 289 pp.)

September 12, 1993|Rosellen Brown

These days people speak of "the secret life of teen-agers" as if they were contemplating the undersea mystery of dolphins or some exotic and dangerously beautiful man-eating plant. Is it really possible that we have so lost connection with our children that we're forced to contemplate them as a strange species known to us only in flashes?

Leon Bing, in "Smoked: A True Story About the Kids Next Door," seems to think so, and she provides the lurid light by which we can almost, but not quite, see them.

Author of "Do or Die," an account of gang life in Los Angeles, Bing has turned this time to the shotgun murder of three South Pasadena area high school girls by two of their best friends, and her version of the events and what led up to them makes for the kind of reading that titillates more than it enlightens, that--like tabloid headlines--can't fail to be momentarily absorbing even while it's a little sullying.

Bing has spun out at great length a fairly simple story. The length is to provide not only background on the murderers and the murdered but to give us an insider's privileged view: Here's what it's like to shoot--"smoke"--your old girlfriend (aged 16) and her friends on a drunken whim, to live for drinking and drugs, to start your sex life in the fourth grade. (Well, not these kids, to be accurate, but people they claim to know. These kids waited till they were 11 or 12.)

Bing brings us the result of many hours spent in the company of David Adkins, a boy of good looks and alleged, but not demonstrated, charm. He's got the guts to talk his way around just about everyone, but that proves the inattentiveness and gullibility of adults more than it confirms his genius. Dave, at 12, meets Kathy Macaulay, a well-to-do fellow student, who after giving him years of love, money and a somewhat sordid and inconsistent emotional loyalty, will ultimately die with her two friends for no particular reason.

Dave's fellow murderer is Vinnie Hebrock, who, by his own testimony and that of a group of informants who went to school with him, compensated for his small stature, his general unattractiveness to girls, and an underfinanced and underaffectionate home life by committing nasty crimes: casually brutal robberies and coolly executed burglaries. At 17, Vinnie could neither read nor write.

If Vinnie is angry enough to express his social desperation with outrageous daring, Dave becomes Vinnie's loyal sidekick and accomplice for reasons that remain essentially mysterious (unless the excitement of lawlessness is sufficient explanation, or, as Bing represents Dave's opinion, "This guy Vinnie? Way cool."). Together they live a totally unsuspected double life of petty crime until bad temper, drinking, drugs and an available firearm make mass murder too alluring to resist. "I keep on wondering," says one of Dave's friends when he hears about the massacre, "if at the moment it happened, if killing another person was, like, the most incredible high. Like, whoa!" The story is not meant to be a savory one; but what it is meant to be never quite comes clear, unless we see it as a cousin to those anti-war and anti-crime movies that soak the viewer in blood in order to prove how right we are to be disgusted by war and crime.

"Smoked," which makes Joe McGinniss's undocumented speculations look like hard facts, tries with almost touching earnestness to penetrate the adolescent mind that lived this atrociously amoral and empty life. In its early chapters the narrator gives us kid-emotions in kid-speak: "Gnarly, he thinks to himself." "This party has to be fully happening." This is useful for a while, until we understand that the only thing we'll learn this way is how random and unexamined, how utterly without insight or reflection, this blow-by-blow account will necessarily be. These kids are creatures of sensation; like many adolescents they aggrandize and fantasize, act on impulse, are driven by defensiveness and terror and the fear of not belonging. They are not particularly defiant--there's nothing remotely political when one girl carves a symbol of anarchy into the flesh of her arm. On the scale of available expressions, let alone motivations, for social disaffection, this isn't exactly profound. Perversely expressed hedonism is more like it. If these kids have a slogan it's nothing more challenging than "Party till you drop."

Anyone who has raised--or been--an adolescent recognizes all that. What, then, separates the sociopath from our own kids and (think back) from ourselves, even at our worst? We turn to books to hear someone better informed hazard a theory, advance an argument, at least organize a search party to go looking, not so much for the motive for murder--that comes too late in the game--but for the causes of the kink in the human lifeline.

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