The known facts about the shooting death of sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson are few. On the evening of June 2, at approximately 5:30 P.M., Johnson sustained two nine-millimeter gunshot wounds to the torso. Police officers arrived at 5:37 P.M. Johnson was pronounced dead at the scene. Police apprehended a person if interest, Jack Franklin, who was present when Johnson was shot but left the scene in a borrowed vehicle shortly afterward. Franklin was pulled over nearly four miles away from the site of the shooting, at 5:56 P.M. A nine-millimeter handgun, recently fired, was found in the back seat.
Over the course of the novel, we learn more details from witnesses and people in the neighborhood. Tariq was running an errand for his mom. Someone heard the shopkeeper shout “Stop! Thief!” But it turns out he was mistaken. The shopkeeper was calling Tariq back to get his change. But other facts aren’t clear. Did Tariq have a gun? If so, where did the gun go? Was he in a gang? Does it even matter?
The book follows the community over the week after the shooting. In short first-person narratives, usually just a page or two long, people touched by Tariq’s death reflect on what happened and on their own lives. We hear from Jennica, a young waitress who saw the shooting and tried to perform CPR. Brian Trellis, who thought Tariq was a thief. Brick, leader of the 8-5 Kings, who has been trying to recruit Tariq and was on the scene. The Reverend Alabaster Sloan, a politician who arrives on the scene to support the family and get in front of the cameras. And then there’s Tariq’s family and friends, each person with his or her own perspective on how things went down and what to do next.
One of the boldest things about this book is how Magoon refuses to answer a lot of the questions around Tariq’s death. She doesn’t allow for easy answers or clear finger-pointing. Only a few things are clear by the end. Tariq was surrounded by violence, and his death was a tragedy. There are people who are clearly part of the problem, who are making things worse for boys like Tariq and everyone in the neighborhood. But most of the people in the book are just trying to figure out how to live.
Take Tyrell. He was probably Tariq’s closest friends and one of the few boys in the neighborhood who managed to stay out of the Kings. But without Tariq around, who will protect him? Kimberly, a hairdresser, is also not part of a gang, but she longs for a way to a bigger life. Will meeting Rev. Al help her get there? And Will has gotten the chance to live in a better neighborhood, thanks to his new step-dad, but he misses the good things about his old world and sneaks back to make street art and tags whenever he can.
Written in 2014, the book echoes the Trayvon Martin case in some respects—hoodies and candy feature prominently. And Magoon clearly has the injustice of Trayvon’s death on her mind, but this book takes a wider view, looking at how the people in a community intersect and how each person has to plot his or her own course in light of community pressures.
At times, I found the large cast of characters overwhelming, especially early on before I’d gotten to know any of them. The quick jumps between chapters took me a while to get used to as well. But once I got involved, I liked how the book presented so many different sides of the neighborhood. This is a book about a community, and communities are filled with so many different types of people that showing just one or two won’t capture the whole picture.