Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Book Review: Tattoos on the Heart

Let me preface this review by stating that this is not the kind of book that I normally read. As a matter of fact, I tend to avoid books with phrases like "boundless compassion" in the title and dust jacket quotes citing how inspirational and life-changing a work it is. My experience in the field of inspirational Christian literature is limited, aside from a few Chicken Soup for the Soul anecdotes my old elementary school principal used to read to us.

As part of a church project, I once read Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life. I was just in high school, but even then it struck me more as watered-down pop-philosophy than anything of real theological value. It's not that there's not a place for these kinds of books, and it's true that they do impact a large number of people. But I'm a young cynic, so when people tell me that a book is going to inspire me, I tend to nod politely and then roll my eyes. Most of these books tend to be too slick, too eager to supply those curt maxims that sound deep but, when you think about them, areactually quite trite.

This is all leading up to the fact that Tattoos on the Heart was kind of a pleasant surprise. This is not to say that it's the sort of book that I would go out of my way to read, but it ended up giving me something to think about and stew on.

Tattoos on the Heart is written by Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest who works with gang members in inner-city Los Angeles. Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries, an organization devoted to helping gang members get on their feet and escape from the life of crime and violence. To this end, Homeboy Industries does such important things like job training and mental health counseling, as well as simply giving children a violence-free area to hang out. One of the most important things the organization does is pay for tattoo removals - in this area of Los Angeles, where having the wrong gang symbol can get you killed, such a service is essential to starting a new life.

Boyle has been running Homeboy Industries since 1986, and he's filled with stories - both funny and heartbreaking - about the characters he has seen over the years. His narrative contains very little naiveté or innocence - he may be a priest, but he understands the horrors of this kind of lifestyle, and he's no stranger to the statistics. Since Boyle has started Homeboy Industries, he has buried 168 of his "homies."

You can probably guess by now what sort of book this is. You wouldn't be wrong. Each chapter is organized by some sort of inspirational theme, as Boyle stitches together anecdotes and stories of the people he's encountered and helped (or tried to help). Many of the stories end in tears and hugs; others end in tears and funerals. Boyle peppers these anecdotes with Bible quotes and references to Scripture.

But even though Tattoos on the Heart clearly has a religious agenda, I found for the most part that the stories speak for themselves. As a preacher, Boyle is capable, but he never blew me away with his Biblical references or nuggets of spiritual wisdom. As a storyteller, however, Boyle is top-notch, and in this regard, I think that Tattoos on the Heart has what a lot of other books with a similar agenda lack. Boyle manages to humanize these characters he has known. Painting both their good and bad sides, Boyle sees them as people, complex human beings with all the dignity and flaws that this entails.

With this humanizing quality comes a batch of funny and tear-jerking stories. One gang member managed to escape the hood by netting a job at Chuck E. Cheese's - as the man in the mouse costume - all to make sure that his son will be born into a family with a "workin' man" for a father.

Not all such stories have happy endings. Some are comical, some are sad, but Boyle manages to show these people without ever belittling or judging them. He is a firm believer that sinners are those people that society has left behind, and he is working tirelessly to make sure at least one person pays attention to them. By focusing on people, rather than cliched parables and overused Bible quotes, Boyle's book carried a punch that I wasn't expecting. It got me thinking about organized religion - in this day and age, we're used to religion being politicized and polarizing. Boyle's faith is the opposite, aiming to draw in as many people as possible without being judgmental.

Amazingly, Boyle doesn't seem to have much of an ego, either. Some of the best stories involve awards that he's won; often, instead of wasting time picking up such plaques himself, he sends a group of homies in his place to give a speech and accept the award. As it turns out, while "progressive" organizations may appreciate Boyle's outreach to former gang members, they are far less pleased with these former gang members actually showing up to their event.

Is Tattoos on the Heart a great book? I wouldn't go that far; as I said, the moments of preachiness and references to the Bible often serve to bring down a narrative that could simply speak for itself. At times, the attempts to imbue the stories with some sort of higher theme fell flat; I enjoyed reading these anecdotes without the author trying to fit them in to his predetermined messages like "Compassion" and "Kinship." But I enjoyed the book far more than I thought I would, and it's yards above similar works. The fact that Boyle is out there every day, working on the streets, instead of merely delivering pompous speeches in a megachurch, goes a long way toward making the book work.

I'm still not necessarily a fan of "inspirational literature." But I don't regret reading this book; it gave me a lot of insight both into a world I knew nothing about, and a form of religion that often gets overlooked for the zealots and hate-mongerers. If you like "inspirational literature," or know someone who does, Tattoos on the Heart is one of the better ones I've come across out of my limited experience with the genre. It's corny, it's preachy, it's sappy. But it's true, and the people are presented not just as lifeless characters in a parable, but as real living, breathing human beings. So, while it might not be might favorite thing to read,I applaud Boyle for working these human complexities into this genre.

ChargeShot!!! was provided with a copy of Tattoos on the Heart for review by the publisher.