When I first heard about Wee Rockets, which I learned would be about a bunch of young kids in hoodies in Belfast, I must say that I didn't know they would be such tough characters. I was maybe thinking more along the lines of the Artful Dodger and other beloved street urchins.
But these are not those kids. When we come into the story, Joe Phillips' crew is just setting out to mug an old lady, and this is not their first crime, even though, as the story tells us, none of them is over fourteen years old. (And some are a lot younger.) And the community has begun to notice.
For this reason, and not because of any crisis of conscience, Joe, who is the tallest of the bunch and therefore the most conspicuous, is looking to leave the gang behind him. But not before Stephen McVeigh, after trying to rally the Beechmount community behind him, decides to go after the gang as a kind of lone vigilante. In essence, these two fateful decisions propel the book. Well, that and the surprise visit of a long lost relative.
Never having been a pre-teen boy (and they are all boys, there is nary a girl in sight, though Joe seems to have a healthy enough interest in grown women), you might think that this violent and sometimes brutal tale about boys stealing to gain access to cheap cigarettes,booze and weed would hold little interest for me. But it's perhaps exactly the inside view that makes it so interesting. How many books have you read about what it's like to grow up in a working class Catholic neighborhood just as the Troubles are starting to recede? Yeah--same here.
Brennan has many strengths that makes this not just another crime story. He has a great gift for structuring a story, for one thing. There are a lot of characters in this short book, and a lot of plots to keep whirling in the air, but he manages this in a very understated sort of way. You don't really realize how difficult it is until you stop to think about it. The book has humor despite its darkness, and I must say that though I'm sure the author drew on some autobiographical details to write his characters, I have to hope that his obvious talent for thinking up criminal activity all went on to the page and wasn't tested in the real world at an earlier time...
There are elements of the story that could be told here in Santa Cruz, which though affluent and mostly calm, does have its gang problems. But as I've stepped back from the story a little, I think there is a lot about its particular milieu that leaves these kids with too much time on their hands. It's not just absent fathers and working moms that are the problem. This story is set in the aftermath of a war, and the power vacuum that came in the wake of that is evident. Who does have authority? is one of the questions the book asks. The fact that young kids can rush around mugging people with impunity means that the social fabric is pretty tattered.
There is a telling sentence fairly far into the book. It's almost a throwaway. Joe is sitting in a car parked near Queens' University, though he doesn't know precisely where. "He'd never been in this part of the city. Hadn't thought he ever would."
Hadn't thought he ever would. It was fairly stunning to me to read that, but it made the over the top behavior of the kids seem more credible to me. It isn't just that these young Beechmont hoodlums don't expect to go to college. They don't even expect to visit its vicinity. It's not just transportation that's stopping them. It's that as much as they identify with their Beechmount neighborhood, they are also limited by it.
In one scene far into the book, one character takes another out to dinner. When the woman starts yelling at her date, he tells her that her Beechmount is showing. "This is a classy place, you know."
The woman has the pride to walk out on him, but, tellingly she doesn't have quite enough self-confidence to stare the other diners down and have her meal anyway.
Now frankly, most of this book's target readers aren't going to be reading it for these sorts of sociological reflections. They're going to be reading it for the fast paced, gritty and sometimes shocking little tale that it is . And I say, have at it!