The book jacket is scary, garish purple. A bloated, ratty-haired girl squints evilly and points her gun, Uncle Sam-style, right at you. Fortunately, "8 Ball Chicks," journalist Gini Sikes' look at female gang members in three U.S. cities, doesn't deliver on its cover's tabloid promise. Sikes' subjects are sometimes frightening, but she isn't trying to scare us. Her girl gangsters are more victims than perps, trapped by their own violence, desperately fighting against disappearing entirely.
Subtitled "A Year in the Violent World of Girl Gangsters," "8 Ball Chicks" falls within the booming genre of the inner-city travelogue: rental-car journeys into and out of American ghettos. The format has some intrinsic problems -- do we really believe that poor Americans inhabit an entirely separate "world"? -- but, at its best, lets us hear voices excluded from most mainstream accounts of urban life. And with violent crime rates multiplying for adolescent females even as they fall for males, Sikes has picked an important topic at the right moment.
Sikes' analysis is sparse and not particularly illuminating ("Without an effective national policy for youth, kids fell through the cracks in droves"), but she's got a good ear and the sense to step back and let her subjects seize the microphone most of the time. Guided by gang girls in Los Angeles, San Antonio and Milwaukee, she visits neighborhoods in which traditional female routes to power -- sexuality, femininity, maternity -- have been so devalued that it's better to be like the guys than liked by them. So the young women don baggy clothing, stuff weapons down their pants and wreak havoc on a society that has, in many cases, allowed them to be abused physically and sexually since they were children. If they're fearless, it's only because death is preferable to loneliness, physical pain more bearable than unvented rage.
In each new environment, Sikes plays up her own naiveti -- a tactic that makes her look sincere, but also casts doubt on her qualifications as an interpreter of inner-city life. She fears for her handbag, mistakes a .25 automatic for a cigarette lighter and, most disturbingly, professes herself surprised that the gang girls imagine better futures for themselves. At the same time, she steers clear of melodrama and gratuitous suspense, making it plain that "the life" is also ordinary life, as boring and repetitive as it is violent and chaotic. If her story lacks the passion of first-person accounts of gang life like Monster Cody's "Monster," or the depth of long-term works of reportage like Alex Kotlowitz's "There Are No Children Here," it certainly offers a more nuanced look at the lives of female gang members than filmmaker Allison Anders' sentimental "Mi Vida Loca."