Sandro Meallet’s Edgewater Angels is a beguiling coming-of-age story told by a 12-year-old boy called Sunny Toomer growing up in a housing project in San Pedro, California. Billed as a novel, it is really a series of artful tales (several previously published as individual stories) linked more by a single narrator and location (the projects everyone calls the Ranch) than by a single overarching conflict. But this hardly matters. Though comparisons with the gritty autobiographical stories of Junot Diaz’s Drown are inevitable, in its comic point of view, plot twists, and moral vision Edgewater Angels reads more like an unabashed descendant of Huck Finn with a bit of David Lynch’s passion for grotesque dioramas and distorted scale thrown in. The style is a hybrid of contemporary street slang and trippy stream of consciousness; with a fragile bravado that’s hard to resist, Sunny mixes high and low diction, turns verbs into nouns, and invents his own compound words as he wrenches meaning from simple, often violent events.
Like Huck, Sunny is a believably flawed and confused boy, and he doesn’t always respond virtuously to the pressures of the streets—along with his “crew” he’s capable of crime (stealing cars), cruelty (tormenting an obsessive-compulsive speed freak until the guy smashes his own face bloody with a bucket), and deception (setting up his mother’s nasty boyfriend for serious jail time), but he also has a resilient conscience that brings him up short at the crucial moments that threaten to harden him for good. This is fortunate because Meallet invests Sunny with an entertaining if not always believable ability to get himself entangled in dire situations, and an equally remarkable power to outwit dangerous adults (as if their moral blindness also dulls their street smarts) and sidestep the worst consequences. In a lesser writer’s hands Sunny’s various escapes might resemble the wish fulfillment of after-school specials, but here they suggest a state of grace available only to children.
Some readers may wonder why we never meet any of the many adults who must be living ordinary lives of quiet desperation and dignity in these projects. It seems unfair to represent only the world of violent gangbangers, emotionally checked-out mothers, absent fathers, and corrupt LAPD officers—in short, a dangerous universe without a single positive role model. But what makes this novel much more than just another portrait of a hard childhood is the extent to which it eschews the imperatives of realism: Each story is a kind of symbolic tale in which Sunny’s battle is to keep some part of himself human.
In a chapter that brilliantly recycles the genre of local-color wager tales, two rival gangs who are steadily killing each other off (and spraying stray bullets into Sunny’s apartment) decide on a truce. The two leaders—at Sunny’s reluctant suggestion—decide on a swim contest between two of their members who can hardly swim, an unlikely event that temporarily unites the fractured community in an idyllic unity fueled by betting and general hilarity. This comic episode comes relatively early in the novel and serves to heighten Sunny’s awareness: It’s a vision of life as it could have been in these projects, giving him a precocious nostalgia that colors his responses to subsequent events.
Though the novel doesn’t build to a single climax, the stakes for Sunny do increase as his callous mother turns him over to her brutal cousin Yancey in order to make him a “man.” Yancey and his brother take him to Las Vegas (“that got-over-on-’em glitz was strictly a suckermagnet that hypnotized grown fools such as themselves,” says Sunny), where they promptly lose all their money and leave in a foul temper. When a hitchhiker gives them the finger, they stop and release their frustrations by beating him close to death. And Sunny, through all his horror, perceives exactly what he might someday feel if he lets himself be drawn much further into their world:
Right there in the night desert and over the busted-up-misbreathing hitchhiker they’d come upon this strange-to-see-it-happening-to-’em peace of mind that you could tell they hadn’t experienced in quite some time. . . . The beatdown of the hitchhiker had actually been a kind of religion to them.
The final chapters have a bittersweet quality that point readers toward some felt but inchoate change in Sunny: In one, he and his friends find a dead homeless man and give him a poetic burial at sea; in another, which ends the book—and feels like an unnecessary reach for symbolic meaning—he helps a pregnant woman who’s been in a car wreck deliver her baby. In fact, if this novel has a minor weakness, it may be in the very occasionally forced and even dated innocence of the voice—as if the memory of ordinary suffering has been too effectively mastered to hurt any longer.
Perhaps the only unanswered question here is just what it is that helps Sunny counterbalance the pull of the real with the imagined. We’re told that he sometimes takes refuge in the library (for which his friends tease him), but aside from a remarkable chapter in which he imagines the childhood of his absent father on an island in the Caribbean, we must read between the lines to learn just how this secret interior life might be slowly pulling him away from this world for good—even as it gives him the tools to discern and tell these exceptional stories.