Author Depicts East Bay Life in 'Straight Outta East Oakland'

Local Minister's Novel Addresses a Student's Struggles with a Weak But Heartfelt Storyline

Photo: THE STREETS. Minister Harry Williams' novel 'Straight Outta East Oakland' has good intentions, even if it doesn't have the clearest writing.
Harry Williams/Courtesy
THE STREETS. Minister Harry Williams' novel 'Straight Outta East Oakland' has good intentions, even if it doesn't have the clearest writing.

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Photo: Harry Louis Williams II
[Soul Shaker Publishing]   

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Though separated by only a few miles, Berkeley and East Oakland seem worlds apart. This is one of the messages undertaken by Harry Louis Williams II in his new novel, "Straight Outta East Oakland." Williams, a minister at Allen Temple Baptist Church in East Oakland and a social case manager in San Francisco, knows the dynamics of the streets well, and in his novel, he attempts to both illuminate the disparity between rich and poor in the Bay Area and give hope to youth who are struggling to escape the streets.

The novel is centered on the story of Firstborn Walker, a young man who was born and raised in East Oakland. Despite being from a rough area, the academically talented Firstborn graduated from junior college at the top of his class with a major in philosophy. Now out of school and unable to find employment, he dreams of attending Alston University, a fictional top-tier school that bears an uncanny resemblance to UC Berkeley. He is offered a scholarship by a strange organization that strives "for the Upliftment of Humanity" on one condition: that he supply 20% of the tuition. Penniless but desiring an education, Firstborn does what he feels he has to in order to get the money. Instead of applying for a government grant, he starts slinging dope. What ensues is a sort of violent tour of East Oakland. Drugs, murder, prostitution and poverty abound, but what seems to irk Williams most is the waste of humanity on the streets. The novel is filled with characters that have the potential to do great things but instead wind up standing on a corner, selling to make ends meet.

Unfortunately, another tragic example of wasted potential is the novel itself. The book stumbles through a plot that would be more compelling if it were told in a more convincing or eloquent way. The prose is rife with unnecessary metaphors that, instead of making the work sound literary, distract from the action. For example, when Firstborn first kisses his sporadically present girlfriend, Maggie, he notes that he would have "roller-skated through hell in a gasoline t-shirt" for another kiss. Firstborn's narration throughout the novel is uneven; half the time the author's voice is so present in the voice of the character that the character is less believable. Even so, Firstborn is a protagonist the reader wants to root for but struggles to understand. Aspects of his character and the choices he makes throughout the plot at times don't really make sense and seem fashioned solely for the purpose of relaying a social message rather than telling a story.

There are times in the novel when Reverend Williams demonstrates a remarkable ear for the language and mentality of East Oakland, likely drawing from his true-life experiences. This is demonstrated most notably through the development of Firstborn's friend and "business partner," Drama. Drama is the prime example of a product of the streets: a smart kid whose childhood was harder than any child should deserve and turns to drugs and violence in order to survive. A memorable scene occurs when Drama confronts a minister who refuses to preach to people on the streets-allowing Williams open discourse on the issue of the need for churches to reach out to troubled youth and serve as agents for positive change in the community.

Ultimately, "Straight Outta East Oakland" is successful in presenting the raw violence and injustice that occurs on the streets, addressing the need for broad social change. But there are too many times when William's prose gets in the way of this message.

Promote social change with Arielle at [email protected]

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