This is post 100, everyone!
From the affirmations on the back of the hardcover, I knew I was dealing with someone who had a finger on the pulse of Baltimore. I’m from Maryland, but admittedly, this isn’t my Maryland. Small as it may be, Maryland doesn’t get enough credit for being incredibly socioeconomically, politically, and topographically diverse as it truly is. Were I to write a book about my experiences, Deray Mckesson and David Simon wouldn’t see any reason the provide a testimonial.
So yes, comparisons to The Wire abound, but that’s a cop out. The Wire is arguably “urban poverty porn,” while The Cook Up is… someone’s life. Dwight Watkins’ life, to be specific.
The Cook Up begins with the death of Dee’s big brother. Bip wasn’t particularly well-educated, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t smart. Not the stereotypical drug dealer, Bip was also an avid reader who repeatedly prodded Dee to become the same. Bip, trapped in the life that Dee had grown to idolize, sought to instill a thirst for black intellectualism in his younger brother. It’s moderately successful, and Dee is accepted to Georgetown, Loyola, and other colleges. But when Bip is murdered on the street, Dee picks up the drug game after only a semester of college. The rest of the book is a journey back to self, the entirety taking place over the short span of a couple years. It’s an exercise in finding the general in the particular, because there’s so much fodder for sustained dialogues on cyclical poverty and complicit institutions (we’re looking at you, Hopkins).
The Cook Up is, essentially, a coming of age story, albeit thrust against a much different background than Ponyboy or any other notables. It bears a quicker comparison to Junot Diaz than to anything that came before, less because of the shared identity of a male person of color, and more because of the sheer bluntness of commentary so essential to city talk. Watkins doesn’t shy away from the descriptions of neighborhood addicts, and at one point describes a friend’s mother with “her gums were bare, her skin peeled like dried glue, chap lived on her lips, and she always smelled like trash-juice.” There’s little judgment in his statements, which border on crass but pause at the precipice.
I recommend The Cook Up, and probably still would even if it were strictly fiction. I was bothered by a couple typos and repeated anecdotes in the text, but those can easily be corrected. Neither interfered with my understanding, but both definitely fiddled with my perfectionist tendencies.
As a general rule, Americans are more comfortable with the proverbial “Slumdog Millionaire” (pardon the phrase) when he’s abroad than when he’s just down the road. Even I recoil at calling it “urban poverty”– because I hate both the knowledge that it’s so close and having to apply the word poverty to people I know.
But that’s wrong, which is why D. Watkins’ book demands attention. People being uncomfortable with the subject matter makes it even more imperative that the story is told. The fact that it’s non-fiction is even more important. At a time when the media is saturated with related images (particularly of Baltimore), D. Watkins’ The Cook Up provides an honest response in the face of disingenuous commentary. If you want to know more about D.Watkins, hit him up on twitter, where I’ve found that he’s very responsive.
Disclaimer: I was provided a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.