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What's Really Going On : UNDERSTAND THIS, By Jervey Tervalon (William Morrow: $20; 271 pp.)

March 20, 1994|Bob Sipchen | Times Staff Writer Bob Sipchen is the author of "Baby Insane and the Buddha," recently released by Bantam in paperback

Put yourself in Francois' head. One moment he's idly tossing a football with his pal, burning up the tail end of his childhood the way American kids are supposed to do. Next thing, boom boom , his friend's dead, killed by a crack-addict girlfriend, and it looks as though Francois is going to be stuck in a narrative that reads like tired gangsta rap.

Jervey Tervalon's "Understand This" does cover some familiar of the lyrical turf of the Ices--T and Cube. The plot and subplots spin off the interlocking questions: Who's gonna get killed, get jailed, get sprung on rock, punk out or flip out--and who's gonna get out (which is, ultimately, the only way to survive as most of these characters see things).

But Tervalon never slips into the standard-issue Angst that drives so many recent urban rite-of-passage tales, fiction and non. Instead, he promptly steps back from Francois' perspective, and pushes readers into the minds of the sort of African American Angelenos that most books and movies and hip-hop music ignore.

Tervalon is not casual about this. The boy Francois sees killed in the first chapter--the "wannabe high roller got gotted by his G,"--is named Goines, after, perhaps, the late Donald Goines, whose "ghetto realist" novels are still cellblock favorites, and antecedents to the powerful but increasingly monotonous Snoop Doggy Dogg strain of social commentary. But Tervalon seems eager to bury that genre with the character.

Shrugging off the de rigeur overlay of rage and recrimination, resisting the peer pressure to posture macho, he is freer to flex his wit, work out his fine observational skills, and inject his warmth into the yarn. Likewise his characters are freer, and hence more compelling than those who inhabit narratives positing a deterministic "system" of white oppression.

Francois' girlfriend Margot, for example, is a sexed-up scholar with an attitude, a hyper-protective father and a clear escape plan that nothing and no one is going to thwart.

Ann, Francois' mother, is a nurse at King hospital. She discerns a trace of her son in each young black man who gets wheeled in on a gurney, and sees the bullet holes and stab wounds she patches as symptoms of a more pervasive force she calls simply "the disease." So fragile is her hope that Ann bursts into tears upon hearing that the scrappy Margot has scratched her way into UC Santa Cruz.

Michaels is the hip young teacher at a high school whose true colors are Crip blue. He digs working at "this outpost, this foothold of civilization in the vast barbarity of the inner city," yet he despairs for his students. All except Margot, who wraps him around her finger and tests his values and willpower with her sophisticated charms.

Tervalon switches points of view among these and other characters--a wanna-be gangster, a middle-class crack-head. His interior monologues lack the virtuosity of a Robbe-Grillet ramble, but the technical glitches fade fast as the characters blossom.

In one masterfully heart-wrenching scene, for example, Margot and Ann go together to a bail bondsman, after the floundering Francois gets busted on a charge for which he is largely innocent--but increasingly prone. At the last moment, Ann, who has already planned her family's escape to Atlanta, can't bring herself to put her hard-earned home up for her son's bail.

"You don't have to explain anything to me," Margot says gently, as they drive away through a bullet-pocked cityscape.

Many writers these days put a poetic patina of nobility on their ruthless young hustlers, players and gangsters, in some cases imagining them a revolutionary vanguard that will lead the wretched of the earth. But as Francois, Margot, Michaels, Ann and other characters see it, most of these dudes are either narcissistic creeps or simply dumber than Play-Doh.

Which is not to say that resisting the street life is easy for anyone, and even the smart and well-nurtured too often find themselves in the grip of the life's powerful reverse pull.

Some of this book's best scenes unfold in moments when the characters have slipped the claustrophobic bonds of their urban environment and ventured, as if on taut bungee cords, into alien California turf.

When a morose Francois heads to Santa Barbara with a partner who wants to tap the lucrative white drug market there, his disorientation and homesickness is palpable.

There are a few missed opportunities. In one Santa Barbara scene, for instance, a bikini-clad beach Betty softens the tough young dealer, then slips him a pamphlet for a cultish "Life Form" seminar. It would have been hilarious to watch the hustler get ambushed by a roomful of touchy-feely, psycho-babbling, self-esteem seeking zombies.

Overall, though, Tervalon's take on this beach town is dead on. And Margot's visit to Santa Cruz is even fresher in its honest and sometimes caustic observations of dorky white kids, snooty African American princesses and a Rastafarian musician from Connecticut who never had to create the hardened facade demanded by the streets.

Some readers may accuse Tervalon himself of being "soft" in this sense. He's not. He's daring. And "Understand This" explores more difficult landscape--geographic and interior--than many of its angrier and grittier brethren.

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