Friday, June 19, 2015

Review: Monster, by Walter Dean Myers

"When you make a film, you leave an impression on the viewers, who serve as a kind of jury for your film. If you make your film predictable, they'll make up their minds about it long before it's over."
- Mr. Sawicki, Steve Harmon's film teacher

Watching the life of another human being is like watching a film. You only know what you see onscreen. We judge others based on initial impressions and appearances. For a young black teenager named Steve Harmon, who has been accused as being an accomplice to a murder, this becomes a scary reality as he realizes his fate lies in the hands of a jury of viewers who are trying to decide what kind of person he is and whether he is the kind of person capable of being part of a murder. Simply being black makes this an uphill battle for Steve, as news footage showing pictures and videos of young black men committing murder dominates the media and colors peoples' views of the black population. The prosecution knows this and uses it to their advantage. The goal is to convince the jury that Steve is a monster.

Monster is written from the perspective of Steve Harmon, who is writing it in the form of a movie script. There are voice overs, close-ups, medium shots, long shots, and so on. There's a cast of characters that includes Steve's lawyer, a woman named O'Brien; Steve's friend, also up for murder, James King; King's lawyer, Asa Briggs; the prosecutor, Petrocelli; Steve's mother and father and brother; Steve's film teacher, Mr. Sawicki; the judge, and so on. We see scenes of Steve's past. His interaction with his brother, his conversations with others in the neighborhood, including King. Interspersed amongst his screenplay are journal entries, where Steve searches within his soul to try to learn who he is. The trial has rattled his identity, especially as he realizes that everyone, including his own lawyer, including his own parents, believe that he is a monster.

The trial revolves around the death of a drugstore owner, a middle-aged black man whose own weapon was used against him. The place was robbed of the little bit of cash in the register and a few cartons of cigarettes, which were later sold to people who snitched to the police. Four people were involved. James was the one suspected to have pulled the trigger, while Steve was suspected to have been a lookout. He merely entered the store and left, and his silence was the signal that all was clear. Of course, Steve never admits to doing this. He doesn't want to write anything in his notebook that might indict him. There are indications things did happen the way they did, but the shooting was an accident. Steve perhaps found himself in a situation he didn't want to be in in the first place that went too far. And now he might face 25 years to life.

Though the novel never establishes whether Steve was actually involved in the crime, you can't help but hope the jury does not convict him. Steve is sensitive, and his time in prison would likely be awful. He contemplates suicide, but prisoners aren't allowed to have belts or shoelaces. Myers masterfully keeps the reader distant from Steve, by not allowing us into the events of that eventful day, while at the same time he puts us squarely in his shoes, facing his fears and feeling his isolation. This is especially apparent when Steve realizes that his father now looks at him differently, and when his own lawyer fails to develop any sort of bond with him - for her it's probably just a paycheck. At one point, a young black juror smiles at him, but when he returns her smile, she looks away as if remembering who he is, and we can understand Steve's despair.

Though I've only read three of Myers' novels now (and sadly he has passed away), I admire his experimentation with genre. Of the three books I have read, Fallen Angels was the only one that was a traditional narrative. Shooter is a multigenre work, a mix of diary entries, interviews, newspaper clippings, and police reports, all combined to create the whole story. Monster is a screenplay, though not strictly a screenplay, as it also has pictures and Steve's personal thoughts. While the screenplay portion feels distant, focusing solely on the trial, it's through the diary entries that the book is more intimate with Steve. This technique also keeps us distant from the other defendant, James King, who may or may not have done what he was accused of, but it seems likely he pushed Steve into doing something Steve didn't want to do.

People of privilege have trouble bringing themselves into the perspective of those who lack that same privilege. In the closing statements, the prosecutor, Petrocelli, says of James King, "If he had chosen priests and Boy Scouts as his companions, I'm sure we wouldn't be here today." The key word here is "chosen." Petrocelli believes James and Steve had this choice to make, probably because in her own experience this was a viable choice. It's easy to believe that you get to choose the people you associate with when you have the privilege to make that choice. But the reality is, even for those who do have a life of privilege, you don't necessarily choose who you associate with and you don't always choose where your life ends up taking you. Time and place are key. For Steve, being a young black man in a poor neighborhood, his choices are limited, as the likes of King prowl around and seek to use him for his own gains. Steve's choices are limited to incurring the wrath of the likes of King or doing as they bid and feeling accepted. Monster is one of those books that should be read by everyone, white or black, because it allows us to see from the perspective of a demonized young man like Steve Harmon and realize that he is not a monster.

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