I really wish The Don were alive so I could give him this book and get his opinion. The Don spent some time repoing cars in nasty parts of Newark in the 1960's, and was really conservative and he didn't have a lot of sympathy for people but he also had a grayscale view of the world. It would have been fascinating to see what he thought of this book.
Luther T. Farrell is a good guy. It's strange that he's such a decent guy since his mother is a criminal mastermind who works just inside the law. Carol Ferrell, aka "The Sarge", is a master at insurance fraud, criminal neglect, slumlording, and moneylending among other things. She rules impoverished Flint, MI, through an empire of legal and illegal activity and a wide coterie of minions and people too indebted to say no to her. Luther's her minion too--she got him an illegal driver's license and he's been working afternoons and nights running one of her care facilities. He is doing this in return for the money The Sarge is depositing into his college account, money that will get him out of Flint and let him achieve his dream of becoming a philosopher (see, he's too idealistic for words!) A series of events lead Luther to question his part in the Sarge's activities and realize what he's in danger of becoming.
Curtis is a great writer with an expert hand at balancing tragedy and high comedy--Luther and Sparky's adventures in injury with intent to sue, for example coupled with Luther's growing guilt over the eviction of one of his classmates. The Sarge is an awesome creation, a true Fagin or Moriarity. When there's talk of her killing someone for the insurance money, you know it is true and that she could coldbloodedly arrange it. But Curtis also lets you see that The Sarge is human--she does care for Luther in her feral fashion, even if she's chosen criminal activity as the quickest and most expedient way of reaching her goals. The scene where The Sarge tells Luther about how she came to abandon her ideals is chilling, but cements her portrayal as a real person with a tinge of sympathy.
Kudos and awards galore got to Curtis as one of the bright lights of both children's and African American fiction, and Bucking The Sarge shows why they're deserved.