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Issue Date:  March 11, 2005

By Mark Salzman
Knopf, 352 pages, $24
Looking for literature in unlikely places

Tragedy, comedy found in writing class at juvenile hall


Mark Salzman’s True Notebooks is, in many ways, a book that has been written before. It’s a memoir about the author’s experience teaching a writing class to violent teenage offenders -- many of them charged with murder -- at Los Angeles’ Central Juvenile Hall.

The characters are familiar: There is the energetic and compassionate nun who operates with alien efficiency and stamina. There is the tough guy -- a few of them, actually -- who softens against all expectations under the spell of a creative outlet and a caring teacher. And there is the callous guard -- a few of them, actually -- who softens against all expectations when he sees the transformation that the writing class signals.

It’s the narrator who makes this story new. “When I can’t make up my mind about something,” Mr. Salzman writes early in the book, “I start a notebook.”

His dilemma was not, at that point, should he or shouldn’t he teach a writing class to juvenile offenders, it was should he take up a friend’s invitation merely to visit one.

Here is some of what he wrote in his notebook under the heading, “Reasons not to visit Duane’s writing class at juvenile hall”:

“Still angry about getting mugged in 1978.”

“Wish we could tilt L.A. County and shake it until everybody with a shaved head and tattoos falls into the ocean.”

Mr. Salzman was not coming from what a peace activist friend of mine lovingly calls “the do-gooder’s ghetto.”

He was -- and is -- a novelist. His friend Duane had invited him to his class after Mr. Salzman confessed a clash with his editor over what she considered a weak character -- a juvenile delinquent -- in his novel-in-progress about a Carmelite nun.

He visits the class. He’s left “surprised” by the students’ work. And with a blunt intercession from Sr. Janet, the nun who dreamed up the writing program, Mr. Salzman starts his own class at Central, an experience that had me committed to the book in my every spare moment.

The book is sad. But it is also filled with the kind of comedy unique to the colliding of two worlds. On his birthday, Mr. Salzman receives word from his editor that a first draft of his novel is all wrong. The news sends his most devoted student into a fit. A chair is thrown. “She don’t know you, she don’t know you come down here to help us out, she don’t know shit.”

The students provide relentless comic tension. It’s a necessary partner to the tragedy -- layer upon layer of it -- constant in their writing, which Mr. Salzman includes at length, reminding the reader persistently why the author bothered to write the book -- and teach the class -- in the first place. And why you should read it.

Jeff Severns Guntzel is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, March 11, 2005

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