Holy fuck. I mean seriously: holy fuck. You know the cliché about stuff ‘making the hair on the back of your neck stand up’? Actually happened. Genuine shivers down the spine. Two-hundred-and-twenty pages of agonizingly honed build-up driven into the base of your skull through the knife-point of the final three paragraphs, with all the brutal precision of a neurosurgeon wielding a prison shank.
Lola records all this in her diary (‘Anne’), which is quite brilliantly realized, from the initially innocent punctuation-free prose to the deadpan humour in her reporting of her parent’s increasingly grim-faced yet detached commentary, including gems such as this, as her mother quizzes her on one of her new friend’s dietary habits:
‘Is lactose intolerance a black thing sweetie?’
Glorious. These new friends are increasingly all Lola has, with all the typical complexities of relationships between teenagers, exacerbated by not just factors of race and class (Lola is very much a WASP, or whatever the Jewish equivalent of a WASP is), but also by Lola’s growing realization and acceptance that she’s gay. She tentatively experiments with one of her private school friends (which rebounds on her horribly) before embarking on a fully-fledged, if fraught, relationship with Iz. It’s fraught because Iz is a member of the Death Angels, an all-girl street-gang who Lola gets accepted into, though her acceptance causes all kinds of knock-on effects.
One of these effects, and the single greatest thing about this novel (and there are many great things about this novel), is the gradual transition of Lola’s language from the breathlessly correct naivety of a slightly precocious tween, to the snarling, uncompromising vernacular of an unrepentant street kid:
Daddy came back this afternoon before we came home from school and when we got home he was in his office making some phone calls. Mama said ‘They gave it the old thumbs down darlings.’ She meant they didn’t buy his idea so it’s going to be harder than it has been round here because I think he was counting on signing the deal.
Everything downcame today Anne the world’s spinning out and I spec we finally all going to be riding raw. Morningside when I woke it was ninety already and I was swimming. A half hour passed then Iz phoned saying ‘Meet us at 125th there’s gonna be heavy action.’
And the action is nothing if not heavy. Pickpockets, riots, muggings, and murders: this the environment into which Lola finds herself thrown, and it’s very much sink or swim. The sitting president gets assassinated five times over the course of the book, so what chance does a schoolgirl have if she doesn’t toughen up fast?
Random Acts is possibly the most perfect fusion of form and function I’ve ever experienced. Right now I certainly can’t think of anything else that comes close. I’ve read some great stuff written in patois, but the way Lola’s language changes with her situation and personality – gradually at first then with increasing urgency and aggression – is executed flawlessly: prose enhancing character enhancing plot. It all builds, it all builds, to those final few dozen lines, the impact of which is literally physical.
There is nothing random or senseless about this book, but it certainly delivers on the violence: physical, psychological, and emotional. How this isn’t more widely known I’ll never know. You need to read this book and you need to read it now.