Shooting of Rabbit Wells: An American Tragedy

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9781559703802: Shooting of Rabbit Wells: An American Tragedy
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The author of Anna: A Daughter's Life, a New York Times Notable Book of 1993, follows the collision course between a black youth and the white police officer who killed him in a sleepy New Jersey suburb in 1972.

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Review:

Bill Loizeaux grew up in a pleasant little town in semirural New Jersey, in idyllic, gently rolling foothills. For Loizeaux, though, the communities of Bernardsville and Basking Ridge will always be remembered as the place where, in 1973, a shockingly bright and well-liked high school classmate named Rabbit Wells was shot to death by a policeman outside a bar where Wells was trying to help break up a fight. It is a simple, forgotten incident, only one of thousands upon thousands of senseless killings before and since. Yet for Loizeaux, it remains the turning point of his life.

"I am haunted by the hills of my youth," Loizeaux writes, "by what was right and what was wrong in the gentle lives we led there." He puts himself in Rabbit's head and retraces decades-old footsteps, imagining an older Rabbit, an upright pillar of the community; he invents situations that Wells could have lived and acts out the roles of the participants. Interviewing the man who killed Rabbit Wells, still a Bernardsville policeman, Loizeaux hopes that the cop will share his fervent belief that a full accounting of the incident, a "setting straight," is the only way to bury Rabbit properly and move on. This is a first-rate fiction built on a bedrock of fact, in which Loizeaux takes a simple story and asks us to believe and care about a young man whom no one ever got to know. --Tjames Madison

From Kirkus Reviews:

This memoir of a childhood acquaintance who became a peripheral casualty of social turmoil is affecting despite a curious remoteness. Loizeaux (Anna: A Daughter's Life, 1993) revisits the suburban New Jersey of his childhood to exhume the story of a charismatic schoolmate of mixed race, William ``Rabbit'' Wells, mistakenly shot and killed by a young police officer, William Sorgie, in 1973. This account of Wells's life and death is indisputably a structural marvel, nimbly flitting back and forth in time in a way that should be confusing but isn't, thanks to his unfailingly clear prose and his eye for the detail that instantly impresses a scene on the mind. Piecing together a fragmented image of Wells--and, much less distinctly, the still-living Sorgie--Loizeaux flirts again and again with the circumstances of Jan. 13, 1973, but leaves the heart of the matter to a powerful climactic narrative. But while precise, Loizeaux's style also exhibits a sort of contrived-sounding hauntedness. For despite apposite autobiographical touches, the book doesn't really establish the source of the author's depth of feeling for Wells, as manifested in sometimes almost incantatory writing and heavy-handed symbolism. And while the transitory presence Wells had, even for those who became closest to him, understandably makes for a dearth of solid facts 25 years later, Loizeaux's rather flat novelistic reconstructions of speculative events become unwelcome as they mount up, repetitively signaled by phrases like ``I can imagine . . .'' or ``I suppose. . . .'' Ultimately, the wounds seem to have healed long ago (albeit with visible scar tissue) and been overtaken by broader upheavals. Thus, this story's power resides in its careful reckoning of a personal loss, not in the ``echoes of our national life''-- Vietnam, urban rioting--that he perfunctorily refers to. Still, a quietly heroic rescue of a pointlessly stolen life, and an evocative snapshot of an extraordinary moment in an ordinary place. -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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William Loizeaux
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Loizeaux, William
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