Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Disappointing Riot

Cover of Walter Dean Myer's book RiotI don't read many books I don't like. I'm not sure if that's because I'm open-minded, or if I've winnowed out the losers before starting.

There are only a few books I've started and not finished because I couldn't stand them, and I don't think it's ever happened with a young adult novel.

I came close with Walter Dean Myers' recent book, Riot, much to my surprise. While I confess I hadn't read any other books of his, I knew he was a respected writer (winner of the Printz award, and a finalist for the National Book Award and the Newbery), and the book's topic, the Civil War draft riots in New York, is one that's interested me since I was a teenager reading Phyllis Whitney. Plus, I liked its cover.

Despite all that, I almost stopped reading it several times, and only finished it because it was short and I wanted to see if it could somehow redeem itself. The things I disliked:

  • I couldn't stand the screenplay structure of the book. It felt forced and artificial, and any film that would result from it would be terrible because it was full of film clichés.
  • Despite knowing that Myers is a collector of artifacts of the riots, it seemed to me as though he had no interest in visualizing life in New York, 1863. Perhaps because of the constraints of his chosen screenplay format, there was none of the rich urban detail that can usually be found in historical stories. Myers' "movie" is no Gangs of New York, that's for sure.
  • Although it's probably just a conceit for his present-day audience, it really bugged me that the black characters refer to themselves as "black" -- not a term that was in use, generally, in 1863. Colored was the term preferred by polite society at the time, and I found it jarring to repeatedly hear an adjective that wasn't used (at least in the positive sense) for almost a hundred years.
  • Finally, there are just too many characters, with no feeling built up for any of them: Irish boys in the mob, Union soldiers in the street, and suddenly Walt Whitman pops in for a breather, spouting poetic insights. At only 154 pages, and with a pretty small number of words per page, it's more of a novella than a novel. But with 28 characters to learn about, the reader never gets much of a chance to care about any of them except 15-year-old Claire.
I liked that Myers focused the story on Claire, a biracial teen who, because of the riots, realizes life is not as simple as she thought:
If it's my skin that makes me unsafe, can I take it off and put it in a drawer until the streets are calm again? If it's my skin that puts me in the sights of murderers, can I change it the way I would change my dress or my apron? Where is this "safe" you're talking about? And if I'm black and you're white and that makes me a target, where is this "family" you're talking about? Where is it, Mum? Where is it? (pages 89-90)
I had a hard time, though, believing Claire would have been so protected before the riots that she had no idea how people would perceive her and her parentage. Claire's world, pre-riot, was one where black and white New Yorkers seemed to exist in a race-blind nirvana (working side by side at the colored orphanage, being school chums), only to have the uncivilized Irish destroy it.

My own interest in the draft riots has always left me wondering why the impoverished Irish turned against the city's small black population. It would have made a lot more sense for them to go after the rich, who could buy their way out of the draft by paying $300. It's one of many examples from our history where racial identity undermined class interest, or possibly was manipulated by the powerful to protect themselves. Myers deals with this a bit (the Irish insurrectionists refer to the rich as "swells"), but it's only a minor part of the story.

To check my negative reaction to the book, I set up a little semi-experiment by reading one of Myers' best-known books, Monster. This novel has some things in common with Riot: it's set in New York City with a black teenager for a main character, and it's formatted as a screenplay. That's not as much commonality as it might sound like, though, since it's present-day New York and the teenager is a boy named Steve who's in jail and on trial for felony murder.

The screenplay format makes a lot more sense in Monster, because Myers uses it only part of the time, and it's an organic part of Steve's world view (he'd taken film-making classes before the events of the book began). Plus, Myers mostly confines the screenplay sections to the courtroom scenes, where there isn't much background description required. Most importantly, the first-person notes written by Steve, interspersed with passages from the screenplay, give needed depth and nuance to his character, and are what really makes the book interesting.

Riot, on the other hand, never breaks from the screenplay format. Worse, it's full of heavy-handed visual and even aural direction that would be inappropriate in a screenplay, but that falls far short of what would be possible in a novel. ("LIAM takes a hesitant half-step forward, then inhales deeply. WE HEAR the sound of a low note from a cello that begins to rise in volume" page 123).

As Myers himself wrote in Monster, in the words of Steve's film teacher, Mr. Sawicki: "When you see a filmmaker getting too fancy, you can bet he's worried either about his story or about his ability to tell it" (page 214).

I would love to read the story of Riot again, written as a novel, bringing all of Myers' knowledge of the subject and feeling for his main characters to become the story it should have been.

1 comment:

Ms Sparrow said...

Interesting insights. You zero in on stuff that would have made me donate the book to Unique unread.
Talk about persistance!