Bill Beverly’s debut novel, Dodgers, is a coming of age story. It’s a road trip. It’s a crime novel. It’s a mission. And ultimately, it’s a dodge.
Here’s the set-up: There’s a gang in LA. No surprise, they sell drugs and commit other crimes. In fact, Fin, the head of their gang is likely to go to jail, but there’s a witness (a former judge) hiding out in Wisconsin that needs killing.
Four boys – ages 13 to 20 – are tasked with taking that road trip: 15-year-old East, his younger half-brother Ty, Walter, and Michael. East spends most of his time “standing yard” in the Boxes, watching for trouble, refusing entry to some potential drug purchasers while letting others in, always on the lookout for cops. It’s thought he’s related to Fin. His younger brother Ty has a different dad, and he’s tough, maybe crazy, and already a killer. Walter’s supposed to be the smart one, a hulking six-footer. And then there’s Michael, a college boy, who can talk white, knows the landscape, and can help them fit in where four black guys – even wearing Dodger t-shirts, caps and sweatshirt and driving a mini-van – will stand out.
They head out with strict instructions: keep your head down, wear your Dodger wear, no guns, no drugs, no credit cards, and the oldest – Michael – drive the car and holds most of the cash. They are to head eastward, follow specific instructions to obtain a gun, kill the judge, and then come home. Of course, it almost immediately begins to fall apart, and 2,000 miles later, they’ve thrown Michael out of the car, the judge is dead, East shot his own brother, Walter’s taking a plane home, and East is stranded in the midwest. He hunkers down, making a life for himself as the jack of all trades at an Ohio paintball range, where the proprietor and his wife take him on in a quasi-familial relationship. The sad part of this: paintball proprietor Perry is dying. A call home to Walter reveals that Fin’s in jail, and everything East has known is changed. He decides he’s never coming home.
Of course, he does. I won’t reveal the plot twist that brings him back, but I didn’t foresee it. He has to head home. Because, of course, the boys’ journey to kill the judge was much like Dorothy and her friends’ mission to kill the wicked witch of the West: just an assignment to keep them all busy. Fin’s goal was to simply keep East safe. It was a dodge – which Merriam defines as “a cunning trick or ploy to avoid something unpleasant.” The boys may have been the Dodgers, but Fin pulled the strings.
Beverly is a fine writer, with a particular strength in description of people and places. You almost smell the sweat of the boys in the hot car and see the wonder of the icy beauty of the midwestern landscape. His description of the people, even minor characters, makes them real. It’s worth the time to savor his writing. It’s an unusual and haunting story, particularly given the ending, which I won’t give away here!
It’s tough to compare Dodgers to Under the Harrow. They are very different books. Under the Harrow is a personal story, emotional, raw in its feelings. Dodgers comes across much more “literary,” cooler in feel. I enjoyed them both – but for the character detail, the complex plot, and let’s face it, the play on words that is the title, I’m giving the top spot to Bill Beverly’s Dodgers.
Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best First Novel