Saturday, February 11, 2012

Dark Dude by Oscar Hijuelos

DARK DUDE n. 1. What a male of light skin is derisively called by persons of color (colloquial, Harlem 1965-1970). 2. A person considered suspect because of his light complexion, especially in criminal circumstances. 3. Someone who is not considered "streetwise." 4. A white person considered not to be "hip." Cf. "Straight." "Uncool." 5. An outsider, particularly in the context of ghetto society. -- THE HYPOTHETICAL DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN SLANG
Fifteen-year-old Rico is the son of Cuban born parents, but with his sandy-colored hair and light skin, he looks Caucasian. Growing up in Harlem in the late 1960s, in the midst of Latino and black neighborhoods, this brings him plenty of grief. It also contributes to his feeling estranged from his own family, especially since he barely speaks Spanish.

Even without these issues, his life would be far from easy. Rico suffered a serious illness when he was a small child, and his heartbroken, angry mother has never let him forget the misery that brought his family. His beloved father is an alcoholic. On top of that, his high school is an incubator for violence and drug abuse. For Rico, truancy is an act of self preservation, but it lands him in trouble, and he is faced with the threat of military school.

Rico has his love of books -- particularly Huckleberry Finn -- his gift for writing comics, and his best friends Gilberto and Jimmy. However, Jimmy's life is quickly dissolving in a world of crime and drug addiction. So Rico takes a chance on saving both of them. He convinces Jimmy to run away with him, and they head for the Midwest. They live on a farm with Gilberto, a Cubano who also grew up in Harlem, and a group of hippies. The life Rico has entered is difficult.
Well, even if they say life can be shitty, you really don't know the half of it until you've dug up an outhouse. This was the fourth time in twelve months that I'd gotten down into the nitty-gritty and goop of it -- and I'd had enough, for crying out loud.  But I was doing it for my old neighborhood bro Gilberto, not just 'cause he'd have smacked me in the head if I didn't, but as a thank-you-man for letting me stay on his farm for so long.
In the rural Midwest, Rico's Caucasian looks help him blend in, but he feels torn about turning away from his cultural heritage and struggles with guilt about having left his parents. As he, Jimmy, and Gilberto flounder toward carving out better lives for themselves, each must make his own decision about the home he left behind. And Rico grapples with loneliness, conflicted loyalties, and first love.

He also works toward coming to terms with racism. He's faced prejudice from Anglos due to his Cuban heritage and hostility from other Latinos because of his "white bread" appearance. He's also colliding with hatred between Latinos and blacks and his own deep distrust of African Americans. I was impressed with this multi-layered picture of bigotry and racial conflict. It offers a glimpse of the world of the late 1960s, in which changes were coming fast, conflicts were reaching the boiling point, and many groups were struggling to find their sense of identity.

I also agreed with Nymeth that the novel skillfully probed the question of whether Rico’s ambivalence toward his cultural identity stemmed from the bigotry around him or from his own racism. This is difficult to untangle. We often absorb prejudices that flow through our culture, but we also tend to project our own attitudes onto the world around us.

While pondering these themes, I also became absorbed in Rico's voice. He is a kid who is, in some ways, on the cusp of maturity. He often seems self-aware, but in other ways he is adrift in circumstances he doesn't understand and oblivious to his own emotions. For example, he seems disconnected from his feelings for his girlfriend, and he has a fuzzy perception of his own hopes, dreams, and accomplishments. At times, he's perceptive, honest, and hilariously funny. At other times he doesn't seem to understand what's happening in his life, especially in his own mind. Kind of like a real adolescent. :-)

I also admired the fact that while each character was striving for a sense of identity and a better life, there was no Road to Damascus moment. They continued to flounder, make mistakes, and find themselves in crazy situations right to the end. And there were no clear answers to the life-defining decisions they faced. This author had the courage to let things be confusing and messy, as they are in life.

I highly recommend this novel. It's likely to provoke discussion of serious subjects including drug abuse, alcoholism, crime, and violence. It also offers a route into conversations about personal and cultural identity and what happens when we try to make a clean break with our past and when we go back to collect the pieces of ourselves we left behind.

Read More Reviews: Things Mean a Lot; The Happy Nappy Bookseller; Y.A. New York

Rating: 4

5- Cherished Favorite4 - Keep in My Library3 - Good Read2 - Meh1 - Definitely Not
For Me

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