We don't find much of a do-gooder in Mark Salzman at the beginning of True Notebooks, his memoir about teaching a writing course at Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles. If he had his way, he admits, he would "tilt L.A. County and shake it until everybody with a shaved head and tattoos falls into the ocean."
But he has problems developing a realistic juvenile-delinquent character for his latest novel-in-progress, so he enlists in the writing program to spend time with some real teenage robbers, rapists, and killers. Predictably, he comes to find that they are not monsters but merely misguided, rudderless children. Although Salzman admits to worrying about being knifed--or penciled, in a particularly hysterical fantasy--the risks he takes in True Notebooks are entirely artistic, not physical. A story like this could easily dissolve into a cliché of empowerment: Yale-educated white guy from affluent background inspires young minority toughs to discover themselves through the power of art. And here and there, True Notebooks veers dangerously close to that maudlin moral.
But Salzman has consistently had a self-deprecating and delicate touch, proven memorably in his lighthearted memoirs, Iron and Silk and Lost in Place. In True Notebooks, he paints an endearing picture of the young offenders without absolving them of past crimes. He readily acknowledges that these kids are dreadfully damaged, some irreparably. Their writing, which is transcribed in the text, consistently reveals the heartache of growing up in fractured families, the horror of their upbringing, and the allure of finding new families in gang life. Many of the pieces are heartbreaking. Kevin Jackson, Salzman's star student and a murderer, writes about a third-grade teacher who took him to a science museum, bought him a Slinky toy and freeze-dried ice cream, and took him out for a hamburger. It's his only sweet memory.
Salzman effectively punctures serious moments in the book with humor. But unlike his previous memoirs, True Notebooks has a dark tone that culminates in the sentencing of his favorite students, some for the rest of their lives. In one chapter, he witnesses their high-school graduation ceremony in prison and, in a section that captures the tenor of the book, reflects on the absurdity of it all. "Nearly half of the boys and girls had prepared speeches for the occasion. They repeated themes heard at just about every high school graduation: we are nervous but excited, we are proud of our accomplishment but sad to be saying goodbye to each other, we are eager to show the world what we can do. The bleak future the graduates were stepping into gave these clichés an unexpected poignancy."