In the projects of San Pedro, California, drive-bys are commonplace as police seek refuge in their stations after sunset, gangs creep in dark alleyways, mothers struggle to keep their dignity as they dig through trashcans for household items and fathers are heard of but never seen. And in the midst of the urban turmoil, there are still children that play. These children are at the heart of Sandro Meallet’s debut novel Edgewater Angels, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story about 13-year-old Sunny Toomer, who strives to understand his situation and survive the odds against him as he grows up.
In his book, Meallet spawns a range of tales that fluctuate from the dark and raw to the outright hilarious and absurd, the story opening with the introduction to Tom-Su, a strange, slightly mentally retarded Korean boy with a tendency to bite the heads off of live fish. Further on, Toomer’s friend Will Man beckons him to come along and listen to a talk he’s about to have with his ex-convict father, Hector, about the birds and the bees. The protagonist’s first person narrative voice, a trippy stream of consciousness that mixes street slang and incessant compound words, has golden moments of truth and humor only a child narrator could pull off. In his description of a neighborhood bully, Toomer says: “Beefy came in huge meaty sections of body-tree trunk thighs, elephant trunk calves, not-a-swimming-trunk-in-the-world-fitting-ass.” Though these hyphenated phrases tend to slow down the flow of the narrative, they really set the book apart, making it a unique and interesting read.
As the author himself will attest, 95% of his story is unearthed from his own unnerving childhood experiences in the ghetto. He was able to escape the chilling environment he was in after accepting a basketball scholarship at the University of California and soon transitioned into writing to document what he saw. We caught up with Meallet to discuss his novel and his experience in the San Pedro projects.
Q: To what extent is Edgewater Angels autobiographical?
M: I had most of the experiences Toomer has in the book. I had to pretty much figure things out on my own and with my friends. In the projects, no one clearly teaches you right and wrong, you have to learn that by yourself. Most of the households are single- parent ones, mainly with mothers who are trying to figure out how they got to the ghetto and how to improve their lives. So the kids are left by themselves, running around in the world like we did. We had to come up with our own morality and our own ideas of good versus bad.
Q: You said basketball saved your life. Where would you be without it?
M: Well, it gave me two opportunities to be back in an educational environment. The first time I didn’t take the opportunity, but the second time I took the offer because a light bulb went off in my head and I was like, “I can’t squander this. This is your opportunity to never go back to the projects in the same condition you’re in and improve your life.” Initially I went to college so I could play ball. Academics, I didn’t know what that meant. Where would I be? Pretty much where 95 percent of the lives of friends of mine ended up-in jail, on drugs, homeless, and beat down by fate and destiny. The iron hand of poverty would’ve gotten me, I’m sure. My whole social alumni group got annihilated and a lot of them died, like the kids in the story.
Q: Did you always want to get your story out?
M: I was in Germany playing basketball and I was very unhappy. It suddenly became a business and there was nothing personal in it anymore. I knew at that point that I wanted to go back to California and I wanted to start doing a graduate program, but more importantly I wanted to write a book of fiction because I felt this thing coming out of me that really had to express itself. And I think that if you have experiences from your childhood, no matter how romantic or traumatic they are, they’re always going to be nipping at your heels as you get older. You have to turn around and deal with these things and my way to do that was to write a book.
Q: Has the highbrow literary industry intimidated you since you’re a first-time author?
M: No, people don’t intimidate me, industries don’t intimidate me (laughing). It’s been a bit of a mystery to me just because I don’t know the ins-and-outs of the business. The Ivy League heads and graduates who want to become writers master the business and the networking and connections. Me, I’m not built like that. I can’t get into it. I’d feel like I’m cheapening myself and selling myself and I’m pretty much outside of all that. Luckily the reviewers of Edgewater Angels have been very kind.
Q: How have you been received by the people of San Pedro after the book?
M: They’ve actually had a very good attitude about it. A couple of them are actually proud of the fact that I put that part of San Pedro on the map because it gets a bad rap since there’s a lot of crime. People die there all the time and there’s a big drug trade and I didn’t shy away from those things. I represented the human underpinnings of people who existed there-a lot of beautiful, good people. And kids are kids until the social forces get to them and divide them up, chew them up. We were kids and we weren’t threatening to anybody. The future was threatening to us in a sense because we were never prepared for it. Nothing ever prepared us, but we had our childhood and that’s a beautiful thing.
Q: Speaking of your childhood, what are your most vivid memories?
M: Tom-Su eating the heads off the fish! That and the birds and the bees talk with Hector. I had to sit down and figure those things out. I mean, what the hell was that all about? These things, they haunt you, and until you sit down and just meditate on them, they’re always going to be a mystery to you. I wanted to demystify them.
Q: I heard you got arrested at the age of eight. What was that all about?
M: Me and a couple of other guys broke into cars. I tried running away and finally one of the police caught up to me. We had 27 counts of robbery, were handcuffed, taken to jail, and booked at the age of eight! The cop pulled a gun on me and said, “you take one more step and I’ll blow you in the back!”
Q: You just had a baby last year. At what age do you think you’ll introduce your son to the book?
M: I’ll leave that up to my wife. I can’t read him children’s books; they bore me. I’d bust out my book and start reading it, but she’d put the brakes on. When he’s in junior high school, I’ll introduce him to it.
Q: And so what’s next in your literary career?
M: I’m getting towards the end of my second book now. It’s a piece of scandal. It skips ahead four years later when Toomer’s 17-years-old. It’s a much darker book and doesn’t have as much humor as this one because the subject matter is much more sinister.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org