Frank Bonham

Durango Street

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Durango Street Summary

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Durango Street (1965), a young adult novel by American pulp-fiction writer Frank Bonham, follows African-American teenager Rufus Henry as he tries to negotiate the gang politics of his neighborhood. One of the earliest fictional representations of gang culture, Durango Street was named an American Library Association “Notable Book.”

The novel opens with Rufus’s release from Pine Valley Honor Camp, a juvenile detention center where he has finished his sentence for Grand Theft Auto. Rufus is smart and streetwise, and when a police officer gives him a final warning to “straighten up and fly right,” Rufus recognizes that this is good advice.

However, while he has been imprisoned, Rufus’s mother has moved to the Durango Street Housing Project, an area notorious for its “fighting gangs.” On his first night at home, Rufus goes out to get milk for his mom, bringing his little sister, Janet, with him. They witness a gang fight, instigated by a gang called the Gassers. Afterward, the Gassers confront Rufus, but he de-escalates the situation and the Gassers let him go.

Rufus vows to stay clear of the gangs, knowing that involvement will violate his parole. At the same time, he begins to face the reality of a “straight” life in the projects. He cannot return to high school until the fall, and in the meantime, his only work opportunity is at a tire retread shop, where the work is grimy and boring. Rufus begins to feel that none of his options are good options. “What am I supposed to do?” he asks his parole officer. “Join the Sea Scouts?”

The police question Rufus and his sister about the fight they witnessed. Rufus knows better than to say anything, but Janet does not: she tells the police everything she remembers from that night. With the information Janet has given them, the police are able to arrest several members of the Gassers.

The Gassers hunt down Rufus, believing that he is responsible for betraying them to the police. Rufus threatens the Gassers’ leader, Simon Jones, with a broken bottle, forcing the gang to let him leave unharmed. However, he knows he has made a dangerous enemy. He has no choice but to join another gang for protection. He approaches the Moors because he has a friend from Pine Valley who is a member. The Moors vote him into the gang and initiate him with a ritual beating.

The police arrive during this initiation and arrest everyone. The gang’s leader, Bantu, is held on drug charges. Rufus, in violation of his parole, worries that he will be sent back to Pine Valley.

The Moors are approached by Alex Robbins, a social worker from the Special Service for Groups, an organization that seeks to break up gangs. With Bantu in jail, Rufus’s natural charisma allows him to take a leadership role. He encourages the Moors to meet with Alex. He hopes that Alex will be able to keep him out of Pine Valley.

Alex offers to help the gang members with any problems they might have. In return, he asks the Moors to meet with him regularly and to elect a president to run the meetings. They elect a member called Leeroy. Alex suggests that he might be able to arrange for the gang to meet the Marauders football team. This especially excites Rufus. His mother has told him that the Marauders’ star player Ernie Brown is his father. He has compiled a huge scrapbook of photos of Ernie, and he hopes that his connection to a respected player, together with his natural athletic ability, might help him get onto a professional football team. This secret hope has increasingly become the only thing preventing him from embracing a life of crime.

Bantu is released. He is furious that the gang has elected a “president.” He tries to beat up Leeroy and when Rufus stops him, Bantu challenges Rufus. By winning the fight, Rufus becomes the new leader of the Moors.

As a leader, Rufus reflects, “A gang has to be kept busy. Busy meant fighting.” As Rufus expands the Moors’ territory, he realizes that his gang has the potential to become a powerful force in the neighborhood: but first, he has to chase out the Gassers.

Rufus arranges meetings with two other local gangs, the Aztecs and the Bloods, and offers them a deal. He proposes that each gang provide alibis for the others so that all three can pursue their rivalries with other gangs and evade prosecution when the police come looking for them. Both gangs refuse this offer.

Returning from one of these meetings, Rufus learns that the Gassers have attacked Janet. Enraged, he summons the Moors and sets out a complex attack strategy. Everything goes according to plan and the Gassers are routed. The Gassers’ leader Simon Jones is forced to leave his car behind, and Rufus destroys it. In the morning, the Moors are questioned by police officers, but the Bloods—having seen that Rufus means business—agree to provide alibis for them.

Alex knows that the Moors are responsible for the attack on the Gassers, and he is alarmed to learn that the Gassers have obtained a gun. He decides to invite the Gassers to the Moors’ meeting with the Marauders, in the hope of brokering peace.

Rufus meets Ernie Brown, and the gangs play football against each other on the Marauders’ field. However, things turn violent when Simon Jones tells Ernie about Rufus’s scrapbook. Dismayed by the fighting, Ernie offers to help Alex start a football league for the gangs.

At the first league meeting, Simon shows Rufus’s scrapbook to Ernie. The scrapbook makes it clear that Rufus believes Ernie to be his father. Ernie is forced to tell him that this isn’t true. Rufus is humiliated. He is determined to strike back at the Gassers, but he knows they will be wary after their last defeat.

Rufus arranges a formal dance for all the youths in the neighborhood and publicizes it thoroughly to make sure the Gassers hear about it. He knows the Gassers will try to crash the party, and he persuades Alex to arrange for police protection. When the Gassers show up and try to burn down the building, they are all arrested on the scene.

Alex visits Rufus’s mom and encourages her to send him back to school. Rufus realizes that his mom’s lie about his paternity kept him safe, as he “carried Ernie around like a pistol, for protection,” but he accepts that a career as a pro footballer is only a dream. As the novel ends, he determines to return to school and avoid gang life.