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'One Strike and You're Gone' : Used to be kids could make a mistake without ruining their lives, says author Russell Banks, who indulged in some juvenile high jinks himself. In 'Rule of the Bone,' he reflects on how today's teens don't have it so easy.

June 21, 1995|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What do you do with a kid gone wrong?

A kid who was good when he was small but now lies, steals, cheats, manipulates, ditches school, talks like a gangster and looks like a bum?

A kid who won't listen and doesn't care--who causes such grief that sometimes you secretly wish he would disappear, just leave home so you wouldn't have to wonder and worry every night?

There's probably not a parent in history whose child has not exhibited at least one such aberrant behavior during the raging-hormone years--some more outlandish than others. But kids will be kids, they used to say. And they also used to say that every kid was worth saving, and almost every kid could be saved. Not anymore.

Sam Johnson's teen-age son, for example, used to stay in bed on school days, steal the family car and do God knows what by night. Once he heisted dynamite from a federal stash to blow up telephone lines and the windows of a bank.

Years later the son, Lyndon Baines Johnson, admitted that in his teens he had been "a hair's breadth away" from a lifetime in jail--but by that time he was President of the United States.

Russell Banks, born 32 years after LBJ, in 1940, was at the opposite end of the social spectrum. His father, an alcoholic and pipe fitter, abandoned the family when Banks was 12--after bestowing enough beatings to permanently cross the boy's right eye.

Banks' mother had no money or skills and four kids to raise by herself. You think her eldest would help her out? No way.

Banks and a friend stole a car in their hometown of Barnstead, N.H., and never looked back. For three months Banks' mother didn't know if he was dead or alive. Then police apprehended two cool teens driving a hot car down a leafy Pasadena street. Kids and car were shipped back to New England, where police and the car's owner were persuaded to let the families deal with their young. In 1956 it was still possible to negotiate such things, and Banks says his adventure was "considered part of normal adolescent turbulence."

In fact, all the way up through the '70s, Banks says, "a kid could have a scratchy patch in his life, leave home for a while, or just do something very wrong, even criminal, and still put his life back together again. There was enough connectedness between social institutions--school, community, family, church--so that a teen-ager's life could be woven back into place and you could go on with it, get over it, even repair the damage you'd caused.

"Nowadays it's three strikes, or even one strike, and you're gone. If you get caught and put into the system, you're finished. It changes you forever."

Even if you don't get caught you're finished anyhow, he says, because the streets are so much more dangerous than ever before.

"It's easier for a 15-year-old to get illegal substances than it is to get a job if he leaves home."

In previous eras, Banks says, "kids could leave home and survive without being ruined--then come home again."

After his own crime spree Banks went on to finish high school and become, briefly, a window dresser at a Montgomery Ward store, a plumber and pipe fitter and, eventually, a tenured humanities professor at Princeton University and the respected author of novels that have garnered dozens of prestigious literary awards and a Pulitzer Prize nomination (for "Continental Drift," Harper & Row, 1985).

*

Banks' latest book, "Rule of the Bone" (HarperCollins, 1995), reflects on rites of passage in a pulp-fiction world, fraught with peril for kids on the brink of becoming good or bad adults with no particular incentive to push them either way.

It is narrated by Chappie, a rural mall rat of the '90s. A sullen 14-year-old with a retro Mohawk haircut, baggy pants, assorted body piercings and the same indomitable urge that Banks surrendered to at that age: to get away from home.

Chappie begins: "My life got interesting, you might say, the summer I turned 14 and was heavy into weed but didn't have any money to buy it with so I started looking around the house all the time for things I could sell but there wasn't much. My mother who was still like my best friend then. . . ."

The tale takes off from there, as Chappie loots the only thing of value in his mom's trailer home--old coins she'd hidden in a blanket on a closet floor, saving to give to him. The pawned coins bring enough money to supply free weed for an entire apartment full of blitzed-out, do-nothing, thirty-something bikers, who in return permit Chappie to live with them and audit their perversities.

The book proceeds through one year of the teen's close calls and life-altering experiences: shoplifting, burglary, fire, kinky sex, death by accident and on purpose, a deep friendship with a Rastafarian who lives in an abandoned school bus and becomes the boy's mentor--and finally a trip to Jamaica, where Chappie finds his real father, who deserted him when he was 5 and who, it turns out, is even a worse person than the molesting stepfather Chappie left back home.

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