Curiously, the book also follows five students at Beverly Hills High School, 22 miles across the city from Compton and one of the wealthiest districts in the country. The Beverly Hills students mostly don’t have to worry about money, or the law, and suffer a more tedious form of ennui and anxiety, like that experienced by Owen, son of a very wealthy Hollywood writer and former actress, who “felt spoiled, a little undeserving, as if he’d been born to parents so intelligent and caring that they’d deprived him of the rite of stumbling clumsily through youth’s travails, as most kids did, knocking into chairs and corners, gaining wisdom from poor choices.”
Hobbs contrasts the experiences of the two groups of boys and is interested in how both groups struggle to carve out lives from the expectations prompted by their origins — the Latinos slandered by Trump as “bad hombres” and “rapists,” the Beverly Hills kids resented by Middle America as spoiled brats. But his attempt to link their senior-year struggles through the supposed “stigma” that results from their origins feels facile, and ignores meatier discussions of race or class that would better illuminate the boys’ two worlds — and the gulfs between them. The inclusion of the Beverly Hills students makes the narrative feel unbalanced, especially given the wildly lower stakes of their challenges compared with those of their peers in Compton, and by the end of the book, one doesn’t have a much greater understanding of the factors that structure the lives of both groups of boys, nor, really, why some have succeeded while others failed.
Upon graduation, the Beverly Hills students go off to top tier colleges where the most privileged among them “didn’t have to factor money into [their] decisions at all.” In Compton, Byron doesn’t get into any four year school and must choose between work and the military; Luis goes to the University of California at Santa Barbara; Tio is heartbroken that, despite his 4.0 G.P.A. and extracurriculars, he’s denied acceptance to every school except the less prestigious U.C. Riverside, where he’ll study agricultural science. Carlos, meanwhile, achieves the near-impossible, gaining the right to a two-year legal stay in the United States as a DACA recipient and earning a full ride to Yale even while his family is evicted from their illegal home. Hobbs celebrates Carlos’s victory as “the completion of some fantastical cycle by which his parents had come here together, alone and moneyless and without the faintest inkling of prospects, and now, almost 20 years later … the sons they’d brought with them might both attend Yale University — together.”
Readers of Hobbs’s last book, “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace” — about his former roommate at Yale, a Black student who can’t disentangle himself from his roots in Newark and is ultimately killed in a drug deal — will know that the value of getting into an Ivy League school, absent relief from broader systemic racism and economic disadvantage, is often dubious. Oddly, Hobbs’s subjects seem to understand this better than Hobbs himself. We learn in the epilogue of “Show Them You’re Good” that at Yale, Carlos becomes an outspoken critic of what he sees as the unfair treatment of undocumented and poor students on campus, and he’s criticized in turn for being “ungrateful.” Tio, meanwhile, feels betrayed by his ambitions, by the “encouragement” that “had brought him to override his own cynicism, layered over 18 years of life, about the idea that a system that had rarely worked in favor of people who looked like him might have begun to change. That it had in fact changed for Carlos, Luis, his girlfriend, and others in the hallways at school, but it hadn’t for him, further concentrated his melancholy.”