Written for “Advanced Narrative Journalism” independent study course with professor Bob Sipchen at Occidental College, spring 2010.
Daina Beth Solomon
Over recent decades, the story of gangs in American cities has become increasingly convoluted and disheartening. Yet, it is a story that must be told and in enlightening ways that capture and maintain the reader’s attention. Stories must offer new insights, perspectives and conclusions. They must bring situations and characters to life, transformed from statistics, analyses and crime reporting. Bob Sipchen’s book Baby Insane and the Buddha sets out to tell the story of San Diego’s inner-city gangs and the criminal justice system put in place to eradicate or at least control them. Sipchen focuses on the San Diego Crips and San Diego Police Department by following the story of young gangster Kevin Glass, known on the streets as Baby Insane, and police detective Pat Birse, known as the Buddha. The story’s perspective is unique; rather than a “good guy-bad guy” story, the distinction becomes blurred as Baby Insane becomes a police informant and Birse becomes personally involved in Crip culture.
Sipchen takes the reader back in time to the early days of American gangs, the formation of the Crips and their migration to San Diego. He explains the role of racial turmoil from the 60s to the present day and describes the grit and danger of life on the streets and behind bars. Sipchen also describes the culture and lifestyle of San Diego, and specifically, the San Diego Police Department. From there, he creates detailed profiles of the central characters. The multiple fragments of this true story are interwoven, connected and relevant; the plot connects in a linear, progressive fashion that is as engaging and entertaining as a novel. But it is the writing – distinguished by in media res scenes, succinct prose and detailed descriptions – that causes these elements are effective.
Throughout the book Sipchen places the reader in the center of the action creating a first-hand immediate experience. While books often begin in media res, not just the first but many chapters of Baby Insane and the Buddha use this device. For example, Chapter Seven begins,
The children pushed their faces out from between the legs of the teenagers and adults who had gathered, sensing the abrupt change in mood of the growing crowd. They came from throughout the neighborhoods, from yards with neatly mown lawns and overcrowded pastel apartment buildings, six- and seven- and eight-year old children, happy to see the tedium of a hot summer evening enlivened, yet not understanding what was happening – as if anyone did at the moment. (31)
These sentences create a clear picture without setting up the context of the scene just yet. Readers don’t know who these children are, where they are, what they’re looking at or what has caused the change in mood. But readers do have a vivid image of the scene and will eagerly read on. Once readers come to details about the context (here, the 1965 Watts riots), they can easily complete the bigger picture while still being deeply immersed in the story. This style makes readers constantly engage with the text as they strive to pick apart and understand the meaning of specific details. The experience is more satisfying than reading a spoon-fed story. As well, the style imitates reality. People often find themselves in situations that they must simply experience rather than comprehend, particularly gangsters and police. As well, there is a more practical motive for this style: in media res scenes can quickly push forward a long, complex story. Plus, they use fewer words.
Succinctness is Sipchen’s distinguishing stylistic trait; even the longest and explanation-laden passages use a minimum of words. The writing would make William Strunk and E.B. White proud. In their book The Elements of Style, they advised, “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts” (23). Indeed, Sipchen’s sentences read like machines that heave the reader into the story and further into the plot with powerful verbs as fuel. As well, these sentence-machines have “no unnecessary parts.” In one scene, Baby Insane is the passenger in a getaway car during a high speed chase with the police. He’s frantic because the driver, Crip Dog, is headed for a dead end. Sipchen narrates,
But Crip Dog, sweat pouring down his face, eyes wide with excitement and fear, barreled ahead. A police helicopter appeared overhead and its searchlight cast about on the ground. The lights of the other squad cars could be seen flashing on side streets now, and the first of the three cars that had initiated the chase had a bumperlock on the Firebird. Pratt cranked the wheel and jumped over the curb.
“You crazy fuck!” Glass shouted. Babers slid onto the floor of the back seat. The Firebird’s tires stuttered over the grave markers. Crip Dog swung the wheel again, and the car dropped back onto the road, jamming full speed ahead, its headlights catching the reflectors on the heavy pipe crossbar of a locked gate. (78)
The verbs in this passage are all strong and specific. Words like “barreled,” “cranked,” “jumped,” “shouted,” “slid,” “stuttered,” “swung” and “jamming” create detailed images. Several are sensory too. “Shouted” enables us to hear the sound of an agitated voice. With “slid” we can feel the sensation of slipping down a car seat. “Stuttered” creates the feeling of our bodies bumping and jolting. As well, the use of specific verbs removes the need to use more than one word to express something. The final sentence of the passage illustrates powerful nouns. It describes that “Baby Insane crumpled to the ground, the central character in an unrestrained exhibition of curbside justice” (78-79). The nouns “character,” “exhibition” and “justice” are specific and have connotations that resonate to the book’s larger themes. As well, each noun is modified by an adjective that gives the noun deeper, rather than redundant, meaning. Baby Insane is not just any character but one who is central to this story. The exhibition was not dignified or stately but unrestrained and wild. Justice was not delivered through a legal system but out on the streets.
Only a writer with an extreme attention to detail would be able to construct such prose. Sipchen’s eye for detail is also revealed in the information he chooses to include in his descriptions. For example, the numerous shootings that pervade the story are all described in achingly precise detail. When “D-Don” is shot, Sipchen narrates,
The first two shots hit D-Don in the chest, the metal 9-mm rounds contorting like mangled aluminum cans, gathering minute chunks of tissue and filling with blood as they tumbled through his body. The impact of the wounds spun D-Don around, and the third shot ripped into his triceps then shattered the huge store window, imbedding itself in a stacked bag of kitty litter. (218)
With these words readers can visualize the bullets’ path through D-Don’s body and imagine the pain they must have caused. While there are enough gunshot incidents in the book to easily desensitize readers, descriptions like these graphic images that are hard to ignore or glaze over. At the same time, Sipchen’s description does not sensationalize or over-dramatize the shooting. The passage is so detailed and specific that it reads like a doctor’s report rather than the stuff of Crip legends. In no way does Sipchen want to glorify the bullets that ripped through D-Don’s triceps. What he does want to do is convey a sense of reality. The seemingly random and absurd detail of the bullet hitting the kitty litter helps to create this reality. The kitty litter indicates that the shooting took place in front of an ordinary market, on an ordinary street where people live with their cats and need kitty litter. The description of the gunshot could be from a war, but the inclusion of kitty litter reminds the reader that this is an average American city.
The book ends in a similar format to its beginning – at the center of the action. While watching LA’s 1992 riots on TV, the Buddha suddenly gets into a fistfight with his new Crip informant, T-Loc. As they grapple on the ground, caught between feelings of “hilarity and rage,” T-Loc cries, “Give up, Buddha! Give up” (410)! At this, with no added words of conclusion from Sipchen, the book ends. By continually jamming the reader into the action and writing with succinct prose and specific, telling details, Sipchen has constructed a book where the actions speak for themselves and the messages are clear. As the book concludes, the reader understands that the Buddha in fact, will never give up in his fight against gangs, no matter how dangerous or seemingly hopeless his undertakings may be. Sipchen’s conclusion is his message. In the complex world of modern American gang life, perhaps this is the best we can do. To just keep fighting.
Sipchen, Bob. Baby Insane and the Buddha. New York: Bantam Books, 1993.
Strunk, William and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. New York: Macmillian Publishing Co., Inc., 1979.