On the Reading Table: Tyrell by Coe Booth

While I was reading Tyrell, a friend sent me this video. Except the sound on my computer was turned down so what I saw was a cameraperson walking on the edge of a cliff. The jerky movements looked like he could slip and fall to his death at any moment. As I watched, the video felt like Tyrell’s life and the fine line he is trying to walk to keep his family together. Just like the video, I couldn’t look away or stop turning the pages of Tyrell. I was rooting for him. I was holding my breath. I didn’t want him to fall and with each step he took in the novel, I kept saying, “Careful, careful.”

Tyrell is fifteen. His father is in jail again. His mother’s refusal to work and her stint with welfare fraud have forced them into homelessness and life in a roach-infested shelter in Hunts Point. At the shelter, Tyrell soon realizes that his attraction to another resident, Jasmine, could derail his dreams of a future with his girl, Novisha. Torn between the needs of the women in his life and his seven-year-old brother, Tyrell is determined to stay clean as he agonizes over creating a new life for his family.

If the plot weren’t riveting enough, Booth’s street language and understanding of her character’s world fill out the harsh realities of Tyrell’s world on the gritty streets of New York City’s South Bronx. As he struggles to escape this circle of poverty, he must also battle dual temptations of sexual frustration and the easy money he could make as a drug dealer. The heart of the book is the painful choice Tyrell must make as he realizes the effect of his mother’s failure to do right by their family.

Reading Tyrell is like walking behind a cameraman on the edge of a cliff, wondering when or if he will fall. One might think Rick James’ Fire and Desire (a song that Tyrell loves) might be the right soundtrack for this book but somehow hearing the plaintive whine of Neil Young’s vocals was perfect accompaniment.