None of the words made sense together, but the doom I'd expected announced itself. I felt iron in my mouth, like I'd gargled with pennies, a taste like blood, a bitter taste that always followed bad news.
The setting is Oakland, 1989; the crack epidemic is at its height and turf wars are brewing. Maceo Redfield, currently on hiatus from college, is walking a fine line between respectability and involvement in Oakland's drug underworld. As he waits in the neighborhood barbershop, one of his closest childhood friends, Holly Ford, brings him the news of the murder of Billy Crane, the third member of their childhood trio and a successful drug dealer. Felicia, Billy's girlfriend and Maceo's true love, is on the run and suspected of setting up the hit. As he searches for Felicia and the answer to the mystery of Billy's murder, Maceo is drawn deeper into a world in which dealers, players, and interlopers, obeying a code of honor all their own, engage in a deadly game to capture the heart of Oakland. When Maceo uncovers the truth about Billy, the story builds to a terrifying and painful climax.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
"Well, if it ain't little bitty Maceo Albert Bouchaund Redfield! That name so tall the boy got to walk up under it and say excuse me every day of his natural-born life."
The crowded barbershop broke into laughter as Cutty greeted me with a variation of the same put-down he'd been using for over sixteen years. The fact is that at five feet five inches I barely reach the first letter of my six-foot-tall name.
"How short are you exactly, Maceo?" This came from a balding contemporary of my Grandfather Albert.
"I'm tall as I need to be," I answered.
I eased into the shop, taking note of the old and young faces waiting in the unusually relentless heat of October.
"And how tall is 'need to be'?" Cutty grinned my way.
Cutty had been my barber since my seventh birthday, and habit kept me a customer despite the insulting words. The barbershop was one place in Oakland that provided shelter if needed and contributed order to an often chaotic life.
More simply, it was home.
Cutty was as invested in me as a blood relative. Alongside his prized Oakland A's paraphernalia, snapshots of local celebrities, and barber's license was a photographic history of my baseball career from Pee Wee League through high school. Up until the ninth grade, all my uniforms bore the red-and-white logo of Cutty's salon, Crowning Glory. The pictures were his way of staking a claim before I hit the majors.
"You didn't answer my question. How tall is 'need to be'?"
A waiting customer piped up with his opinion. "I say he's four ten and a half on a good day." The ensuing laughter reminded me that people often see my height as a flaw. It has been a source of ridicule since I was a young boy, but to me my size is a day-to-day reminder—a reminder to keep life compact and close to the vest. The few times I've reached for the height of others I've been knocked back into place. So I've learned to live as a little man with a big name. And I've learned to smile at the jokes.
"Five foot." Another barber.
And Cutty: "Shit, Maceo ain't seen hide nor hair of five feet." He raised his natural comb to his mouth to think for a moment. "No, I take that back. Maceo was about seven feet tall when he was winning all those championships." And just like that the jokes about my height switched to praise for my baseball career.
I was used to that too.
Cutty picked up a portable fan and held it in front of his face. "Damn, feels like Africa outside." Oliver, Cutty’s partner, rolled his eyes. "What you know about Africa? You barely left Oakland in thirty years!"
"Shit, I know plenty 'bout Africa. I find out all I need to know 'bout Africa every time I go to East Oakland." It was an old joke that never failed to hit its mark.
The bonus October heat had sent everyone out into the streets in pursuit of any company to be had, and the sense of camaraderie and fun among the patrons kept the mood light. Along the curb a few waiting customers sat perched on the hoods of their cars, smoking cigarettes or reading newspapers. A few of the youngstas, unschooled in Cutty's bullet-ridden history, masked shady business deals behind the steady bump-bump of rap music.
Crowning Glory, Cutty's shop of thirty years, sat on the Oakland side of San Pablo Avenue, a dirty artery that ran from Oakland's city center all the way through six cities. It was his fifth location since incorporation. Initially his shop had been on Alcatraz Avenue, the Oakland street so named for its clear-day view of the famed Alcatraz Island. It was there, when I was seven, that my granddaddy took me for my first haircut.
When business picked up enough for Cutty to leave Alcatraz, his bad luck began in earnest. His new location on MacArthur and Broadway attracted all the hustlers and Superfly wannabes of the 1970s. Though Cutty hated to compromise his profession, he built his reputation on the mean, slick perms so favored by that generation. And as his reputation grew so did his clientele until finally, inevitably, a crosstown gangster rivalry was played out in his barber chairs.
The first casualty of Crowning Glory was Scott Hathaway, a heroin dealer with control of North, East, and West Oakland. He was slaughtered by an up-and-coming drug dealer named Jordy Prescott.
Legend has it that Hathaway's look of surprise was driven off his face by a bullet through his right eye. A quick nosedive in business confirmed that most people believed Cutty helped set up the flamboyant Hathaway. Only a new location on Shattuck Avenue and a year's worth of time brought people slowly but surely back into his shop.
The next move was caused by a retaliation shooting that occurred three blocks away, but Cutty took no chances. Before moving into the dusty San Pablo storefront, he had the property baptized by a local preacher, he installed church pews instead of seats for the waiting customers, and there hadn't been a murder since. But sometimes, through the ever-ready smile, I suspected that a cutthroat heart beat in the old man's chest. That much bad luck in one place made anybody suspect.
Memories were short, however; the boys dealing on the curb proved it. The eighties had brought a fast and furious new industry into Oakland, the crack trade, and there was evidence of it everywhere you looked.
The circus atmosphere of the drug game seeped into every aspect of urban Black life. Nothing went untouched as newfound wealth allowed men, women, and children to dream of something different. To the older cats, Michael Corleone and the crew of The Godfather supplied the props to let them dream in an elegant manner and jump the class barriers of their birth. But the rules and regulations of The Godfather became old to the youngstas even before the credits rolled. They had no time for rituals and order, just time enough to shove a big-ass foot through a door and demand the respect only a loaded gun and lots of money could bring.
Scarface was their manifesto.
It was a mess, but more seductive than anything we'd ever seen.
In 1989, the entire Bay Area, San Francisco included, fell under the 415 area code, and under that name a prison gang became a strong independent faction within the penitentiary system, eventually edging out the stronghold of the Black Guerrilla Family and keeping the Los Angeles Crips and Bloods from infiltrating the northern California crime force. The Bay Area was proud of its No Crips, No Bloods policy, but once in a while small pockets of transplanted criminals made their way into the fray, usually by way of family members, more often than not by way of good-looking women.
All that added to the big-man-on-campus swagger of the young men gathered here and there in front of Cutty's. Fellas who, a mere two years before, never rated second glances now had all the props of true hustlers, and they used every opportunity possible to flaunt them. I rode the wave as a person on the edge of the inner circle, aware all the time that the Wizard was just inside the curtain. Anyone who looked closely knew the center would not hold; the smoke and mirrors would disappear and reveal a body count to equal a homegrown war.
The unseasonable warmth pumped the festivities to a fever pitch, and all I could do was watch. The heat had an entirely different effect on my spirits. While the others laughed and joked and made plans to hit Geoffrey's, Politics, and the End Zone, I waited for what was to come.
The 90-degree temperature just weeks before Halloween threw off my alignment. It felt unnatural to my blood and, coupled with the bad dreams, left me coiled like a snake for the first sign of bad news. It was coming, I just didn't know how or when.
Reading Group Guide
The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Nichelle D. Tramble's The Dying Ground. We hope they will provide fresh insights and ways of looking at this exciting new novel.
1. The Oakland of Daddy Al's youth is much different than that of his old age; the opportunity that drew him to the West has been replaced with a drug-fueled violence. Yet in some sense, the freedom and hope of old Oakland still exists in the illicit world of drugs. How does the younger generation appropriate and transform this spirit? What is the response of Daddy Al's generation to this change?
2. Like many places where the law ceases to have meaning, Oakland, and its young in particular, relies on an alternate, unspoken idea of morality and honor. Describe this code of ethics. What are the rules? Do they differ between the drug world and the larger community? What are the contradictions between these rules and the law?
3. When Daddy Al tells Maceo about the tragic life and death of his first wife, Elizabeth, what is he saying about his idea of justice? About its redemptive power? Is this a warning to Maceo?
4. Maceo's large, close-knit family nurtured him from birth and provided a substitute family for many of his friends. Despite the strength of this family relationship, the ghost of Maceo's mother and father seem to exert an equally strong influence on him. What is this legacy? How does it affect him? How are Holly and Felicia affected by the mistakes of their parents?
5. Maceo's vivid dreams haunt him throughout the book; they function as premonitions as well as expressions of his true fears. It seems as if Maceo is wrestling his demons in these dreams, and it is here that we encounter Maceo's father and Billy Crane. What do these dreams tell us about Maceo? About his fears? His guilt?
6. As outsiders and insiders to Oakland, Alixe and Felicia are near opposites, yet they represent Maceo's twin desires. "Alixe was what I wanted waiting for me on the other side, but I needed Felicia." What is Felicia's role in Maceo's life? What is Alixe's? How does Alixe view Maceo's world?
7. Despite the violence surrounding them, the residents of Oakland maintain a remarkable sense of community, as witnessed in Cutty's barbershop and during Billy Crane's funeral. Are these scenes realistic? Discuss how humor is used and expressed in this community.
8. Maceo and Holly view their participation in "the game" less as a choice than as a result of their personal history. Maceo claims he was "born in death," and both men carry the sins of their parents close to their hearts. It is as if their parents and surroundings have created a future in which they have little choice. Discuss this notion of fate. Is it valid? How does it shape their decisions? Does it cause them to disregard the consequences of their actions?
9. Scottie, Maceo, and Daddy Al represent three generations of Oakland males; both of the men play the role of father figure — Daddy Al to Maceo and Maceo to Scottie. How do these relationships work? Is there any disappointment within them? What is each man teaching the younger?
10. For most of the book we see Felicia only through the eyes of others; how does Maceo's characterization of her differ from reality? After she returns to Oakland to avenge Billy's death, Felicia's brother accuses her of following the horrifying example of their father. Do you think this is true? How does she arrive at her startling, heartrending solution to Billy's death? Are her actions justified?
11. The Dying Ground charts Maceo's journey from the fringes of violence to its very center. He struggles to make this transition on his own terms, trying to stay true to the disparate beliefs of his family and friends. Is he successful? Does his love for and allegiance to Felicia redeem him? What does the future hold for him?
12. "From memory my gut knew that it would all disappear one way or another, and it had, one by one.... Some of the loss was my own doing, I couldn't argue that, but it all stemmed from the same place ... drugs." Tramble writes with a sense of ambivalence toward the Oakland drug world; she acknowledges its devastating effects but respects its power. The character of Alixe best reflects this view. What is her assessment of Oakland? Are there any heroes in this story? Do we, as readers, come to understand them?
13. "When you will survive if you fight quickly and perish if you do not, this is called the dying ground' (Sun Tzu). Explain Tramble's use of this quote in her title. What does it say about Oakland and its future?
14. "When you will survive if you fight quickly and perish if you do not, this is called the dying ground' (Sun Tzu). Explain Tramble's use of this quote in her title. What does it say about Oakland and its future?