By Coe Booth.
310 pp. Push/Scholastic. $16.99.
(Ages 12 and up)
Late in Coe Booth's fast-paced first novel, ''Tyrell,'' the hero and narrator draws a distinction between himself -- he's homeless -- and the other homeless people he encounters at a Spanish-speaking church in the Bronx. ''They the nasty kinda homeless, not like my family,'' he says. '' 'Cause we been holding it together.'' The struggle to keep up appearances is at the heart of many young adult novels, but it takes on a different urgency when it includes finding regular meals and keeping a roof over one's head.
Booth's homegrown account of a hard-luck adolescence in the Bronx does not pull punches. Tyrell is a 15-year-old high school dropout whose main ambition in life is to hold on to his girlfriend, Novisha, who has her sights set on college. When his mother gets evicted, on a snowy winter day, and the city can't find a decent shelter for her and Tyrell and his younger brother, Troy, he finds himself in the roach-infested Bennett Motel. For the next week he will attempt to bootstrap his family back into normalcy, taking on the role of his father, who's in prison.
Booth wisely presents Tyrell's story as a quest to get out of Bennett: he has a series of challenges to overcome, and he learns something about himself with each victory. He is equipped with a good set of tools from the start -- his dark wit and emotional honesty recall the heroes of Sharon Flake and Walter Dean Myers. (He appreciates the hot meal Novisha's mother serves whenever he visits, but it comes at a price: ''Ms. Jenkins is just talking on and on 'bout how me and my family need to stay close and keep our faith in God strong while we going through hard times. I nod every couple minutes so she think I'm really listening, but to be honest, I'm really tired of everyone saying that. Like they know what we going through.'')
The obstacles are many, starting with Tyrell's family. His mother is both incompetent and neglectful, which makes her immediately stand out from the saintly and long-suffering mothers in similar books. At one point she suggests that if Tyrell sold drugs the family would be better off, and she puts Troy in special education to ensure a government check every month.
Still, family is family, and Tyrell plans to free his from Bennett by doing the one thing that his father did well: giving parties. As a D.J., Tyrell's dad could earn thousands of dollars in a single night, so Tyrell begins to tap his old man's friends, a colorful collection of bouncers and pimps, to plan a bash in an abandoned bus depot.
To bring it off, Tyrell has to round up equipment and promote the event, and through this process we meet his peers, a set of would-be hustlers and layabouts, including a teenage father-to-be who talks enthusiastically about his girlfriend's baby as if he were a PlayStation. With their help, Tyrell sets up the party, and in the interactions between him and his friends Booth does a wonderful job of laying out the informal support system that keeps homeless kids like him clothed and fed. Handouts from a teacher, groceries from a suitor for Tyrell's mother, and loans and small gifts keep Tyrell's head above water; by the end of the book these look less like desperate measures and more like an older way of life, before government checks and A.T.M.'s.
While the observations are keen and the twists are engaging (a betrayal! a stalker! a secret diary!), it is Tyrell's relationship with his father that forms the soul of this touching, surprising book. Those expecting a cathartic reunion are advised to look elsewhere: Tyrell's father remains a remote presence, and most of his advice is awful and ignorant. When Tyrell recalls how his father taught him that beating a woman is sometimes necessary, we hope desperately that he has developed the independence and moral sense to disagree. The story rises and falls on his decision, and the others that mark his journey to manhood in this gritty and gripping first novel.