FEBRUARY 19, 2015
IN THE PROTESTS following the grand jury verdict releasing Officer Darren Wilson from the prospect of a criminal trial, a white police officer in Portland, Oregon, bent down to hug a tearful black boy, and the moment was captured on camera. It was posted, then shared and reshared — this snapshot narrative of racial harmony a welcome balm for an uneasy country desperate for comfort.
The shot was staged, as it turned out, or at least highly suspicious, but that’s almost beside the point. Even if the moment was authentic, its virality smacked of something distracting, even dishonest — because the problem has never been that white people don’t hug black people enough; the problem is more deep-rooted and sinister, and stories of individual heroism and kindness don’t say anything about systematic injustice. This is a big country. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that somewhere in one of our fifty states, a white cop were hugging a black child this very instant.
We have endless choices in the stories we tell and consume, and if we want to feel better about the world, we can pay attention to these little glimpses of individual kindness and let them fill our minds with the feeling that everything is more or less okay. Hell, if all we want is a stream of opiates to pet our brains into complacency, we can literally do nothing but watch videos of puppies all day, every day, for the rest of our lives. But the fact is, there are things that are seriously wrong with the world, and it’s self-deceiving and even somewhat selfish to ignore them in favor of feel-good clickbait.
In fiction, individual cop narratives tend to be more palatable than stories about the police system, too. Novels and movies and television shows offer hero cops by the dozens, particularly white male loner idealists with desolate personal lives. Back in November, I read three of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels in the span of two weeks, to prepare for a review of The Burning Room. I enjoyed them, but had a hard time reconciling my reading experience with what I saw in the world. Bosch manipulated suspects and circumvented lawyers, all in the noble pursuit of truth and justice, while police misconduct of the most ignoble kind dominated headlines across the country.
Weeks later, I devoured the first season of True Detective, in which hero cop Rustin Cohle beat people and broke into a home to obtain information. Cohle said that he could always tell when a suspect was guilty, and because he was a hero cop, I believed him and watched him rampage. Around the same time, Daniel Palanteo was cleared by a grand jury of all guilt in the videotaped choking death of Eric Garner.
So I’d been thinking a lot about cop stories and their messages and effects when Uncle Janice fell into my lap. And after burning through Matt Burgess’s brilliant, layered portrayal of the NYPD in Queens, I thought, weirdly enough, of Commissioner James Gordon’s line at the end of The Dark Knight. You know the one — “He’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now”? Well, Janice Itwaru may not be a hero, but she’s one of the best cop protagonists I’ve read in a while — a fleshed-out, imperfect character who feels like she could exist in our current universe.
Janice is an “uncle,” one of a cadre of undercover narcotics officers working the streets of Queens. Unlike the rest of the NYPD, the uncles are all officers of color, mostly young, ambitious types looking for a fast track to detective. Janice is 24 and Guyanese, and has all the trappings of a perfect uncle: “Young, brown, from the city, no college, desperate to move up, single and childless, without anyone to collect her pension if she got killed in the line of duty […] a narco lieutenant’s dream.” She’s almost done with her 18-month uncle stint, at the end of which she is guaranteed a detective badge. But after 17 of those months, making buys and busting dealers, Janice is starting to get recognized. Overexposed, her buy count drops, and the Big Bosses take notice.
Her lieutenant gives her an ultimatum: make four buys by the end of the next month or get sent back to patrol, where she started. At the same time, a buy board goes up in the rumpus (the Queens Narcotics Division headquarters), putting silent pressure on all the uncles to up their numbers. They team up and trawl Rego Park and Archer Avenue, visit nightclubs and methadone clinics. They goof off at the office and drink together after hours. They’re a lively cast: Tevis, Janice’s partner, who tells long, instructive stories the others try to avoid; Gonz, the resident asshole; Puffy, her office crush; Fiorella, her friend and fellow woman, a tired single mother; and Eddie Murphy, who resembles the actor, and steadily maintains his identity as a movie star with deadpan hilarity, now working undercover.
Janice thinks of her fellow uncles:
These guys, all of them, they lied recreationally, professionally, to stay sharp, to stay alive. Habituated to misdirection and subterfuge, they kept mistresses and backup mistresses, until it got to the point where Janice couldn’t expect an honest answer if she asked about the weather.
And yet, they are, for the most part, pretty likable, their antics providing a fun rhythm to a novel that deals with some serious themes.
The uncles bust their fair share of bad guys, but they’re never really presented as good guys. Janice in particular is, if anything, an antihero, with a ruthlessly Machiavellian approach to her work. It’s easy enough to root for her when she’s going after the drug dealer guarding his stash with a pit bull; less so when she’s trying to rope recovering addicts at a methadone clinic into selling her their doses, pleading in a way that appeals to their kindness. With the buy quota hanging over her head, she proves a lot less interested in improving society than she is in getting her promotion. (“Please oh please, Janice thought. Be holding something, anything, a crinkled joint, a tab of Ecstasy turning to dust in your wallet.”) As the book goes on, she engages in increasingly reprehensible behavior, and her grip on her life deteriorates.
In addition to her work situation, Janice has to deal with a lot of stress at home. She lives with her mother Vita, a kind, anxious woman who is slowly succumbing to dementia. Her older sister Judith quotes Mother Jones and scorns Janice’s fascist job. When Judith comes to visit, she coaxes Janice into seeing her estranged father Brother, a now-sober alcoholic who used to beat Vita before leaving her for a white woman. Brother Itwaru’s desire to reconcile with his daughter forces Janice to revisit old resentments when she’s already drowning in problems.
In one dramatic scene at a daycare/dealer’s den, Janice comes across an emergency situation and springs into action in an attempt to save a child. It’s one of her more heroic moments, doing so much it seems “Janices filled the kitchen” — the narration splits her into all her different roles, acknowledging all the layered selves that exist in Janice’s body.
When Janice was 15, she served as the muse for her friend Jimmy’s comic book, featuring a West Indian crime fighter named Captain Richmond Hill. At the outset of the project, Jimmy asked her whether she wanted to be a superhero or a supervillain. She chose superhero, and she and Jimmy assigned Captain Richmond Hill an alter ego — Gabby Guyana, an NYPD homicide detective.
But of course, the choice between hero and villain was always illusory, something that only made sense in the world of a comic book. The real Janice is neither hero nor villain, but an amalgamation of nested and sometimes contradictory Janices — loyal and negligent daughter; loving and angry sister; good cop, bad cop.
Not for a second does Janice Itwaru loom larger than life. She is, in every scene, the exact size and shape of a flawed human being. When her actions become unsympathetic, she never claims exemptions; and in this way, even at her worst, she remains stubbornly relatable. Burgess doesn’t give us a hero cop, but by highlighting Janice’s humanity, he offers us something better: a cop story that may be fiction, but that nonetheless rings true.