Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh
At the beginning of May my bookclub tried something new, a ‘bring the boys’ night. Normally the club discusses books and wine, but we decided to go instead with beer and a boy-friendly book. For our book we chose “Gang Leader for a Day” by Sudhir Venkatesh, partly because we thought the boys would find gangs interesting and partly because it takes place in Chicago (my husband and I are the only ones from the ‘burbs, everyone else actually lives in Chicago).
As far as being a boy-friendly book, “Gang Leader for a Day” definitely fit the bill. My husband was a bit skeptical, but once he started it, I’d come into our room in the evenings and find him laying on the bed, engrossed in the book. He isn’t a huge reader, but when something catches his attention, he’s all about it.
Sudhir Venkatesh was a grad student in Sociology at the University of Chicago when he got involved in a gang. Okay, that’s a little dramatic. What actually happened is that he went into the poor neighborhoods surrounding the U of C and began asking people what it felt to be poor and black (seriously). Turns out that’s maybe not such a good idea, as he was basically held hostage by a gang who thought he was Mexican and a spy for a rival gang planning a drive-by. Strange as it may seem, the kidnapping doesn’t end up being all bad. Through it, Sudhir meets the charismatic gang leader J.T. with whom he will spend an inordinate amount of time over the next few years and through whom he will get access to the Robert Taylor projects for his thesis on the economy of poverty.
This book was really interesting and I’m glad I read it, especially living in Chicago and having taught very close to where the events of this book took place. That said, it did disappoint me in some ways. Sudhir’s story was very interesting, but I expected him to grow as a person or learn something during his sojourn in the projects with the gang. Either that, or I expected that he would write his experiences with a story arc. Either way that would have made the book more memoir-ish, since it seemed too subjective for a real sociology book. Interestingly, this lack of growth/story only bothered the girls in our group and none of the guys.
Definitely an interesting peek int the real life of gangs and projects in Chicago. There is some absolutely heartbreaking stuff in here, and it helps you understand how people do reprehensible things to survive. Pick it up as an interesting study, but don’t expect really stellar writing or much of a story arc.