Saturday, March 4, 2017

Book Review: "Bed-Stuy is Burning" by Brian Platzer

No matter how far we believe we've come as a society, the issue of racial tension is still a very real one, one that can trigger violence as a result of real or perceived antagonistic actions. Couple that tension with the resentment often felt when a neighborhood predominantly occupied by minorities is on the cusp of being "gentrified," where long-time residents are pushed out by those with more money and greater ambitions, and you have a recipe for potential disaster.

Such is the environment in which Brian Platzer's novel Bed-Stuy is Burning is set. Bed-Stuy, short for Bedford-Stuyvesant, is a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. It's often referred to as "still gritty," even as wealthy people move in, drive up housing prices, and push others out. Aaron and his girlfriend Amelia are one such couple—Aaron, a former rabbi who left the rabbinate in a crisis of faith (among other things), is now a wealthy Wall Street banker, and Amelia is a journalist trying to find her big break. They live with their newborn son in one of the neighborhood's historic brownstones, once occupied by an African-American family.

Already-simmering tensions in the neighborhood are about to come to a head when a 12-year-old African-American boy is shot by police 10 times, and it is discovered he was holding a video game controller, not a weapon. A large group of youths are mobilizing, tired of the violence being perpetrated against them and tired of the haves getting what is rightfully theirs, and they're ready to take their neighborhood back. And in a split second, it explodes at full throttle, as rioting begins, with enormous numbers of young adults taking control and inciting violence, destruction, and total chaos.

It's not long before the riots reach Aaron and Amelia's doorstep. That afternoon, Amelia is home, ostensibly working, and the baby is being cared for by Antoinette, their nanny, a woman seeking religious salvation. Visiting Antoinette at the house is Amelia and Aaron's neighbor, Jupiter, a single father who is smitten with Antoinette, and wants her to know he will protect her, even as he worries about the fate of his own son during the riots. Also at home is Daniel, one of the tenants who lives in Aaron and Amelia's basement apartment. Daniel is an increasingly suspicious person who has grown slightly afraid to leave his home.

While Amelia, Antoinette, Jupiter, and Daniel deal with circumstances at home, Aaron is struggling with dangerous circumstances of his own. And over the course of one afternoon, each of these individuals will be affected by the events of the day, events which will test them physically and emotionally, challenge everything they hold dear, and make them wonder about what the future holds.

I thought Bed-Stuy is Burning had a lot of potential, a lot of things going for it. Platzer is a capable storyteller, and I really found Aaron in particular a fascinating if flawed character. I felt as if in trying to tell a comprehensive story, Platzer took on more than was necessary. If the plot really was about the events of that day, I found the periodic forays into the backgrounds of all of the supporting characters, including a young rioter and even NYC Police Commissioner Bratton(!), extraneous. I also really wasn't sure what Platzer's ultimate message was here, because the characters' actions didn't all add up for me. (In particular, I was unclear about one of Antoinette's interactions with the baby.)

Sometimes books have great ambition but don't succeed in the execution. For me, Bed-Stuy is Burning was one of those books. Platzer's talent is impressive, and he definitely knows how to ratchet up suspense and tension. Some may not be as thrown off course by what I found excessive about the plot, so if what I've described appeals to you, definitely give it a try.

NetGalley and Atria Books provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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