S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, and Redemption in D.C. by Ruben Castaneda *****

sstreetrisingThis book is remarkable, and I am not the tiniest bit surprised that its writer has won multiple awards. He began life as a journalist, and in part, that’s what this is about. It is a memoir at least four times over. Seamlessly, Castaneda weaves the history of S Street, a formerly down-and-out part of Washington, DC that holds deep personal meaning for him; his own personal story ; the history of local police and in particular, the use of gratuitous violence and what happens to those who try to shut that shit down; and also the memoir of a local street ministry and after school program linked to S Street and the area’s revival. It is braided together evenly and I cannot find a flaw in it (and I am picky). At the end, he ties the whole thing together and puts a bow on it, and my jaw dropped. Did he just do that? Yes, he did!

Many thanks to Net Galley and Bloomsbury USA for the DRC.

My initial thought was that it takes titanium cojones to not only write about the DC crack epidemic while being addicted to it (as well as alcohol), and THEN to come out and write a risky but much lauded magazine article about his own journey doing same, and his subsequent recovery (sixteen years, at the time this was written), and then, after all of that, to write a book about it.

But it’s not just about guts. There are multiple essential messages he wants us to receive, and his strong word-smithery and pacing make it easy to keep turning the pages. The narrative is smooth as glass, transitions so natural they are hard to find. Twice I went back to the opening pages to make sure this was actually nonfiction, because it bears the crafting of a well-paced thriller. And it is highlighted by the journalistic integrity of the writer in what he recognizes is a dying craft: the investigative newspaper reporter.

Looking through the pages of my own city’s less-than-laudable local press as well as TV news coverage, I see two types of journalists, for the greater part. One is the phone-it-in writer. Typically, it is an article about a corporation or organization and the subject of the piece has really done the writing. It shows up as news without anybody double checking the self-aggrandizement done by the firm in question. Easy story.

The other is the heartless story-at-all-costs. Castaneda confesses to being an adrenaline junkie, and the reader must recognize that to keep the hours a journalist keeps for the salary provided, there would have to be a secondary payoff, that of satisfaction. But I do see journalists who go too far, the ones who will approach a mother whose babies have perished in a fire moments before, stick a microphone in her face, and bark, “Tell us how you are feeling at this time, ma’am.” Our author has a couple of sticky ethical decisions he has to make, decisions of integrity versus alpha-journalistic behavior, and he comes down more often than not on the side of the angels, and at least once, he does so at great cost to his career. This is really admirable.

I have read over 200 memoirs, and yet there has never been one like this one. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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