“Team Seven,” the debut novel from Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate Marcus Burke, is the story of Andre Battel, a young African-American man coming of age in Milton, Mass., a small town just south of Boston. Beginning when Andre is 8 and concluding when he is in high school, the novel occasionally alternates in perspective, including chapters from his mother’s and father’s perspective, resulting in a rich, multilayered story of Andre, his family, and his entire neighborhood community.
Even so, the voice that really shines is Andre’s: at once filled with love, swagger and fear. Andre is a gifted basketball player (“Basketball’s been the only thing that helps ease up all the pressure that’s been building up inside me. It’s also the only thing I can do right.”) but as he gets older, Andre becomes drawn toward the local street gang and the money to be made selling drugs.
Soon Andre is torn between these two worlds, a conundrum not lost on Reggie, leader of Team Seven: “What are you tryin’a be out there anyway? A hustler or a ballplayer? Instead of trying to be what you ain’t, why don’t you be good at the things that are good to you, and protect that. Everything ain’t for everybody, Andre.”
“Team Seven” reads like a delicate mix between the clean, tight street language of Junot Diaz and the meditative pacing of Paul Enon. This odd pairing works beautifully throughout most of the novel, as Andre falls in love, is disappointed by his father, and, in a heartbreaking scene, meets his half-brother for the first time.
I say “most” because in the final 50 pages Burke brilliantly shifts to a fast-paced, climatic story of gang violence that, given the meditative, internal focus of the rest of the novel, is sudden and out of place — mimicking life itself.