Native Sons

Honky, by Dalton Conley. University of California Press, 231 pages, $22.50.

All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, by Michael Patrick MacDonald. Ballantine (paper), 266 pages, $14.00.

In the 1970s, when Dalton Conley was growing up, Avenue D on New York City's Lower East Side was a dicey place. Masaryk Towers, the housing project where the Conleys lived, was intended as a place where poor and working-class families would live together. But almost as soon as Masaryk opened, it degenerated into a vertical slum where cops were shot in the elevators and girls were raped in the stairwells. The Conleys didn't fit the social profile of the projects--the mother was a writer, the father an artist (and horse-racing addict)--but their indifference to money made them eligible for public housing and their indifference to their surroundings led them to take what was offered.

What it meant to be white in this world of color and what it meant, later, to be poor in a rich white world are the subjects of Honky, an engaging memoir tinged with the constructs of sociology. Conley examines his life through the eyes of the child: He's terrified at one point that his "pee pee" will get chopped off in the school bathroom, for example; another time, he buys a half-share in a sweatshirt with a buddy. Conley also describes his world through the lens of the sociologist he has become: He renders mothers' watchfulness for one another's children as "community-based social control," and his own time spent at Dungeons and Dragons as a way of bonding with his peers.

On Conley's Avenue D, danger always lurks. Young Dalton is as cautious on the streets as a guerrilla fighter. The thick steel door of his apartment provides his best cover, but not even the apartment is safe: Burglars climb through the window of the 21st-floor "ghetto penthouse" and clean out the place, then return a few days later to grab whatever they'd missed on the first pass. The persisting sense of menace exacts a physical price on Dalton--his hyper-awareness is manifested as facial tics and twitchiness--but by and large he's lucky. When a neighborhood bully shoves a knife blade against his neck, he talks his way out of danger. His karate teacher is shot dead, his best friend is paralyzed by a stray bullet, but Dalton escapes physically unscathed.

The Puerto Rican principal in the local elementary school tells Dalton's mother that she has to choose among the Hispanic, black, or Chinese classrooms for her son, since there's no white class. As in too many ghetto schools, there's not much education going on in any of these classrooms. By year's end, Dalton's mother figures out how to beat the system. She appropriates a fake address so that her son can enroll in a Greenwich Village public school. There, the students, mainly white, are much richer and better tutored, and Dalton has new rules to learn. In the projects, the popular kids are the ones who can deliver the meanest "snaps." The Greenwich Village princes of intellect demand that Dalton define "antidisestablishmentarian" before they'll talk to him.

The transfer means that Dalton has to commute between two worlds--one nonwhite and poor, the other white and middle class. What Erving Goffman famously termed "the presentation of self in everyday life" is hard work. Among his new classmates, Dalton learns the niceties of social class in a world where social status stems from having parents who are "the richest or most powerful" or hold the most prestigious jobs. Meanwhile, he's a "part-time, after-school honky" on Avenue D. It's not the smoothest transition, nor the easiest. As a classmate delicately puts it, Dalton is "socially awkward." In junior high, he rebels, cuts classes, gets failing grades, and is consigned to the vocational track.

For most children living in a place like Masaryk Towers, this would mark the end of the story--or rather, the beginning of a bleaker chapter--but, as Dalton tells his mother, none of this acting out matters. He aces the admission test for the city's academically selective high schools and is launched on a path that takes him to Berkeley and, eventually, a professorship at New York University. Meanwhile, his family escapes Masaryk for decent publicly subsidized housing in Greenwich Village.

When we are very young, we don't think much about race. As a three-year-old, Dalton wanted a baby sister so badly that he kidnapped one from the local supermarket. The girl he picked was black--and, to the further mortification of Dalton's mother, she was the daughter of the leader of a black separatist group that was active in the project.

But as Conley knows, better than most of us, race matters. In elementary school, he is exempt, because he is white, from the knuckle-rapping discipline the teacher routinely metes out to black students. As an adolescent, he torches the apartment of a Latino buddy, and, maybe because he's white, the incident is dismissed as child's play. His parents are guides to worlds undreamed of by his Lower East Side neighbors. The family spends summers in the Pennsylvania countryside, and when his mother's first novel is published, she takes him and his sister on a vacation to Colombia. The Conleys' flight from Avenue D is made possible by their differentness; the fact that his mother and father are artists gives them the crucial edge in the competition for the prize apartments in the Village. There really are second acts in American lives--at least if you're white and bright.

Honky follows on the heels of a brilliantly original memoir of white-working-class life, Michael MacDonald's All Souls, a surprise success when Beacon Press published it and now out in paperback.

Dalton Conley now lives in the hip New York neighborhood of Chelsea, light-years psychologically from where he grew up. But Michael MacDonald is, once and always, a citizen of South Boston--Southie, everyone who lives there calls it--and this facet of his character gives him a very different slant on growing up in a poor ethnic neighborhood.

Ask the denizens of South Boston and they'll insist that their home turf is the best place in the world. It's a separate world of fierce loyalties that struggles to keep itself apart from the meaner realities that lie outside. That's the myth, anyway, retailed in newspaper articles extolling a safe harbor in a disorderly city, a community where drugs are rare and crime rates are among the lowest in Boston. At times, MacDonald, who's about the same age as Conley, shares those feelings. But make no mistake: This isn't Our Town. When MacDonald tallies the body count, scores of his contemporaries, including three brothers, are dead at a young age by murder, accidental overdose, or suicide--incidents unreported because they'd demolish the myth--and he wonders whether there's a way to keep Southie from destroying itself.

All Souls is, at its core, a family memoir, the tale of nine children, their mother, and a succession of feckless males living in a project named Old Colony, as if it were a Puritan settlement. MacDonald spins stories with a wondrous mix of wild humor and brooding darkness. Though his prose is luminous, he has a purposefulness that goes well beyond that of a raconteur. Among the children in the MacDonald clan, some do well, at least for a while: They become, variously, a nurse, a Navy Seal, a champion boxer, and, in Michael's case, an activist for neighborhood peace. He's the quintessential good son: "Looking back, it seems that early on I took over the job of trying to keep things looking whatever way they were supposed to look." But one of his brothers is fatally tempted by the quick money of dealing drugs, and the oldest, who'd been regarded as the brightest, slips into madness and eventually kills himself. Michael's memorable mother, Helen--always called "Ma"--is a stiletto-heeled accordion player, a looker with terrible taste in men, a mama bear's instinct to protect her brood, and a wicked sucker punch.

The same kinds of tragedy that keep striking the MacDonalds--those deaths at an early age--occur in many other Southie households as well. For a time during the 1980s, there's a wake nearly every week for adolescents who die in violence. Heroin is widely available, addiction common, and many teenagers, lured by the promise of a quick buck, are enlisted as runners in the drug trade. None of this is accidental. Southie is run by the Irish mob, and the Godfather at this time is a man called Whitey Bulger, the brother of a powerful state senator. Though Bulger cultivates the image of benevolent patron, MacDonald tells us, he's actually the source of the heroin; he runs the rackets; and though his own hands never get dirty, he's behind more than a few killings. While from time to time his minions are arrested and jailed, Bulger lives the charmed life. Only much later does it come out that his crimes are, in effect, state-sanctioned--he's been in cahoots with the FBI, informing on the Italian Mafia even as he has been poisoning Southie with impunity.

When MacDonald was growing up, though, no one knew that the real enemy was residing within the gates. Passionate anger was trained on the blacks, as Irish families comforted themselves by contrasting their supposed family values with what they imagined to be the shiftless, murderous ways of African Americans (not the term they used). We may be low on the social ladder, Southie residents told themselves, but at least we're not animals. In the mid-1970s, a federal judge ordered that black children be bused in to the South Boston public schools. Though the intention was social justice, the result was nightmarish, mixing the "have-leasts" of both races while sparing the middle class, and turning equality into a numbers game. Still, the viciousness of the reaction in South Boston--blood on the streets, beatings delivered to the tune of the Isley Brothers' "Fight the Power," signs reading KKK, and politicians turned boycott-promoting demagogues--was reminiscent of diehard Dixie. And when public housing officials tried to slip black families into the Old Colony projects, violence flared up again.

These events are part of MacDonald's memoir because they're part of his family's saga. When the MacDonalds moved from a predominantly black housing project to Old Colony, they thought they'd landed in heaven. A few years later, their public schools were being transformed, and they didn't like it. A photograph in All Souls, which originally ran in the Boston Herald, shows young Kevin MacDonald, Michael's brother, naked to the waist, hurling a rock at a bus carrying schoolchildren from Boston's mainly black Roxbury neighborhood to South Boston. After the black families got a whiff of Old Colony, with its surly violence, they wanted out. This wasn't the Promised Land described by housing officials. And it certainly was not the best of all possible worlds: Things were safer in their ghetto.

Ma MacDonald comes to the same conclusion; in 1990 she takes her two youngest children and splits for Colorado. MacDonald also wants out of Southie; and, for a while, he is out. Yet in neighborhoods across Boston, blacks and whites eventually begin to make common cause. It's the mothers who make it happen, the deaths of their children pulling them together. When black mothers bravely venture across the city to attend a memorial service for all the dead youth of Charlestown--another "best neighborhood in the world" for the Boston Irish who live there--they're greeted with hugs, not rocks. A gun buy-back program gets nearly 3,000 weapons off the streets. And Michael MacDonald, who started the program, moves back to Southie, a few blocks from the Old Colony housing project, and launches a South Boston vigil.

Standing at the pulpit of the Name of Heaven Church, he prepares to recite the names of his own dead brothers. "I took a deep breath and looked at each candle as if they had the names written on them. I didn't know right then who was alive and who was dead in my family, and the candles didn't give me any clues. I looked up at all the faces of my friends and neighbors who had broken their silence, in a way, by getting up there and saying their loved ones' names through a loudspeaker--in Southie, of all places, the best place in the world." You can go home again, it seems, if you're as remarkable as Michael MacDonald; you can be, all at once, a homeboy, a peace activist in a land of violence, and a clear-eyed observer of your own life.

Memoirs are meant to offer their readers a peephole view of the lives of others. But the pleasures and insights of these two books stem from more than simple voyeurism; Mommie Dearest, they're not.

Both accounts put a face on uncomfortable truths about the liberal inclination toward social engineering. Both the social class integration of Masaryk Towers in New York and court-ordered racial desegregation of Boston's schools were reforms undertaken with the best intentions. (Full disclosure: I was a participant in the latter effort.) Both initiatives failed miserably, however, because they were fixated on the numbers, not the people, and because they were directed, paternalistically, at "them," rather than being made part of "our" lives as well. In this respect, a gibe commonly heard in Southie--that Judge Arthur Garrity, who issued the busing order, was making poor Boston do what he'd never dream of ordering for his own leafy suburb--acquires bite. The decidedly mixed experiences of the best-intentioned communities, like Shaker Heights, Ohio, and Adams Morgan in Washington, D.C., show how hard it is to bridge the color line in more than superficial ways; to do so by fiat is both more difficult and morally more problematic.

These are take-home messages for the policy-minded. Yet both accounts are personal stories (despite Dalton Conley's occasional lapses into sociologese), and as such they force the reader to make sense of the arc of a life--to imagine what it's like to live Dalton Conley's double life, at once honky and proto-intellectual; or what it means for Michael MacDonald, watching his brothers and his friends senselessly killed, to stick it out in Southie. "And I only am escaped alone to tell thee," says the Book of Job. But what concatenation of circumstance and character makes this possible? ?

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