________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 1 . . . . September 1, 2006


Street Pharm.

Allison van Diepen.
New York, NY: Simon & Schuster (Distributed in Canada by Simon & Schuster Canada), 2006.
302 pp., pbk., $9.50.
ISBN 1-4169-1154-5.

Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.

Review by Thom Knutson.

*** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.


I came home around midnight to something I hated.

A surprise.

I found her sitting in the kitchen, drumming her fake nails on the table. She was still in her work uniform and had a glass of soda in front of her.

I recognized the look on her face.

The look of mean.
“Where the hell were you today?”

“School. Then work.”

“Ha!” She slammed her fist on the table. “I ain’t buying this shit from you! I know you wasn’t at school today. Maybe I should call that manager of yours to see if you was really at work, too! How am I to know you ain’t running the streets like your good-for-nothing daddy?”

“Mom, you tripping.”

“Sit down, Ty. Don’t stand over me like you the big man. Sit down.”

I got comfortable, knowing this would take a while.

“Your guidance counselor called today. He said you been kicked out of Sheepshead and you were supposed to start this morning at one of those” – she twisted her lips – “alternative schools. Not only did you not tell meany of this, you didn’t even show up! They say you tried to convince the secretary that you was an older brother and there was no transfer!

”I stared at the floor. With Mom, I had to play it cool. “I messed up. I’m sorry.”

“Sorry don’t pay the rent, damn it!” She leaned so far over the table that our foreheads almost touched. “You gonna finish high school whether you like it or not. After that, do whatever the hell you want. Don’t forget, you under my authority till you turn eighteen.

”That was less than seven months away. Fact was, I hadn’t been under her authority since I was a kid. Sure, she asked questions like any other mom. But I was such a good liar that she usually believed my answers.

“They expecting you Monday at nine. Be there, or you can pack your bags.”

“I will, Mom.” I meant it. Living at home was a damn good cover for my business. And who knows? This new school could be a chance to get new customers.

Mom stared at me, hard. “You walk that line, baby boy. I know you don’t like school, but you promised me you’d stick it out. I don’t wanna be doubting my own son. But Ty, if I find out you be dealing or gangbanging…”

“Chill, Mom, chill. You know it ain’t like that. Monday, call the school to see if I showed up.” I put my hand over hers and gave her my best smile. “Pack me peanut butter and jelly, yo?”

She gave a sad smile. “All right.”

At 17, Tyrone Johnson is in charge of maintaining the family business, running drugs while his father, Orlando, waits to be released from prison. Like those around him in the drug trade, Ty has a great admiration for Orlando, a man who has earned the respect of rival gangs for his fair and unbiased dealing. Ty works hard to emulate his father, fashioning himself into a ‘king-of-the-streets’ who is known for savvy dealing, women and wealth. It is not until the shooting death of his best friend and associate, Sonny, that Ty admits to himself that he is being used by his father and that he wants out of the business for good.

     Street Pharm is a successful first novel that satisfyingly captures the tone and atmosphere of street life in a large, mainly poor urban environment where drugs and violence are often the norm. The work does not shy away from potentially controversial elements, such as the portrayal of sexist attitudes towards women or the use of profane language. Indeed, these contribute to the authenticity of the novel’s voice and characterization.

     The work’s only notable shortcoming is the abruptness of Ty’s decision to change his ways following Sonny’s death. On the one hand, Ty has both his commitment to his father and enough wealth to be able to live the ‘high’ life. On the other hand, Ty recognizes his strong feelings for Alyse, knowing that she will reject him if he is dealing drugs. For a young man raised in an environment where dealing is normalized, the weight of Ty’s decision could have been explored more deeply. It is the point where the reader really begins to see the sensitive person behind the wall of self-confidence.

     The coarse language will likely find this work more comfortable in public library collections where its short chapters (the excerpt above is a standalone chapter itself), emphasis on action, and plenty of bling will appeal particularly to mature male teens. Pair this work with Benjamin Zephaniah’s Gangsta Rap or Autobiography of My Dead Brother by Walter Dean Myers, for those interested in the experience of the young black male involved in gang or rap culture.


Thom Knutson is Saskatoon Public Library’s Youth Services Coordinator.


To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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