MORE LIKE WRESTLING

By Danyel Smith

Crown. 292 pp. $23.95

In her debut novel, More Like Wrestling, Danyel Smith gives us an inimate look at Oakland, Calif., in the 1980s, through the experience of two young sisters, Paige and Pinch. Seen through their eyes, Oakland is a city of magic and fear -- a place where an amusement park called Fairyland draws crowds to the shores of Lake Merritt, and also where an alcoholic stepfather stalks Paige with irrational fits of anger that eventually result in violence.

That episode, played out on the yard of Paige's junior high school, catapults the two girls into adulthood at the tender ages of 12 and 14. After the humiliating attack, Paige convinces her mother, Gigi, to rent a home of their own for her and Pinch. Gigi, eager to escape the day-to-day binds of motherhood, agrees to the plan, and the girls move into an apartment in a decrepit Victorian they nickname the Pseudo. It turns out to be an apt name for their existence as well. The girls create a life that mimics the happy homes seen on television, and they manage to form a tight-knit family with a makeshift group of Oakland teens centered on the charismatic Maynard.

That urban tribe of eight, all emotional and physical orphans, serves as the heart of this lyrical and engaging novel. More Like Wrestling alternates between the sisters' points of view, with Pinch being the more reliable narrator. When she relays her vision of life in Oakland, we know we are in safe hands. She may wear her silent nature like a cloak, but she never fades into the background. Pinch's commentary is too wicked, too on-point and too piercingly at the heart of the matter to ignore. Oakland has stamped and claimed these characters as its own, but we know before Pinch does that she will be the one to use the failures of her sister and friends to escape her place of birth.

Smith conveys a fierce passion for Oakland and environs, creating characters so specific to a time and place that they could exist only in that city by the Bay. The novel is filled with the distinctive lingo and mores that flavor Northern California. "Oakland builds quality," she writes. "Folks who creep but don't crawl. Melt down, but don't vaporize." Those words, although never repeated, play like a refrain in these characters' lives, and the sentiment buoys the naive optimism that suffuses the book even as people die or fall victim to drugs or mental illness. As Maynard, the man at the core of the group, drifts into the world of drug dealing, the friends bend and nearly break in two, but beneath all the chaos is a sturdiness that is an ode to their city's blue-collar roots.

Once Maynard succeeds in his new line of work, however, we know it's just a matter of time before the other boys give in to what they perceive as easy money. The girls fall into step soon after, playing house, having children and, most important, never asking questions about the new cars, money and clothes. Each character, from the leads to the secondary players, safeguards his or her fragile world by refusing to speak directly to the others about the happenings around them.

Thus the makeshift family remains intact, but this indirectness is both the novel's strength and its weakness. When it works, Smith's light, sinewy prose sings with precision. Of the rich girl who comes down from the hills to steal Maynard's heart, Smith writes, "The longhaired, wrist-whipping girl was Jessica and she got pregnant that very night, like it was her job." Perfect -- all we need to know in a single sentence. The silent Pinch asks herself, "In some private, mental, graduation-like moment [can you] accept that all you've seen is all there is of any worth. . . . And [that] what you assume from your East Oakland, West Oakland, North Oakland, Berkeley, San Leandro experience, what you assume from your life as a kid, is enough on which to base life decisions and lifetime attitudes?" When these words creep through Pinch's mind, we recognize the universal fear that who we are and what we know deep down inside may never be enough.

Pinch's open-ended questions speak volumes. But at other times, specifically in the frustrating interactions between Paige and Gigi, backstory and family dynamics ache to be told in minute detail. This, however, is a minor flaw in an otherwise evocative tale of two young girls trying desperately to find their way. And once found, it leads both sisters out of Oakland, though the city's stamp remains identifiable and strong. Upon seeing Pinch in New York, Paige thinks, "I realized in that moment that I had a hometown, and that the reason people claimed their stomping ground was because if they didn't, everyplace else was as pretend as Fairyland." *

Nichelle D. Tramble is the author of "The Dying Ground."