Cole has grown up on the mean streets of Detroit with his single mom, when his lackadaisical school attendance and edgy friends push her too far. She sticks him in the car and begins driving (into the sunset, which -- I have to say -- did throw me a little bit) to Philadelphia where Cole's father, whom Cole has never met, lives. As his mother deposits him in the midst of some rundown houses and a bunch of strangers, a horse bursts out into the street. His mother's car collides with the horse, and Cole gets his first glimpse of his father, pulling out a gun and shooting the injured horse dead.
Cole learns that his father adopts the Philadelphia horses (racehorses and carriage horses) that are destined for dogfood. Instead, Harper (whose got a bit of horse whisperer in him) rehabilitates the horses by offering to the neighborhood's disaffected youth the opportunity to care for the beasts. The city wants to shut down Harper's makeshift stables, so the property can be "renewed" into a condo development that no one living in the North Philadelphia neighborhood will be able to afford. To that end, it stopped collecting the horseshit weeks ago, and now Cole is expected to contribute to that steaming pile as he reluctantly takes on the responsibility of a skittish horse he names Boo.
The conflict with the city comes to a head over the next few days and Cole (who learns he was named for the saxophonist John Coltrane) calls upon reserves he didn't know he had to save Boo and begin to mend fences with his father. Here the novel gets a little preachy and the package ties up a little too neatly, but the fascinating subject matter makes the lessons go down pretty easy. Neri was inspired by actual urban cowboys in North Philadelphia and his website is chockful of links and other information about these men and boys (probably girls too).
Neri writes in a vernacular speech that sounds how many African American kids (and others) speak today. The subject don't agree with the verb in many cases and the speech is littered with unique vocabulary. It seems an honest portrayal of a Detroit-bred pre-teen boy. The narrator JD Jackson (heard most recently here) sounds completely natural voicing Cole as well as the novel's many other characters. If his voice sounds a little mature, he more than makes up for it with a youthful rhythm and streetwise inflections.
I enjoyed Jackson's vocal portrayals of the novel's three adult males -- Cole's dad Harper and two old crusty guys who provide Cole with some African American history and the tradition of the black cowboy. It was a revelation then, to hear Jackson alter his delivery to give a white newscaster (well, maybe newscaster voices are pretty easy) one authentic-sounding line. It's a subtle shift, but the racial difference is clear.
- Of the two Odyssey audiobooks I've recently listened to, both featured a boy who'd never met his father; and once he meets the man discovers that he's living in pretty disgusting, particularly odoriferous digs. The other Odyssey I heard featured a mouse who frequented a compost pile. It must all mean something.
- I'm pleased to report that the 99 tracks that always annoy me in Brilliance audiobooks were nowhere to be found, as each disc stopped at a cool 15-18 tracks.
[The artist Jesse Joshua Watson illustrated the novel, and this image is from his website. I never saw a copy of the book, so I'm assuming this is Harper calming Boo.]
Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri
Narrated by JD Jackson
Brilliance Audio, 2011. 4:10