Dark Dude, the first YA novel by the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, Oscar Hijuelos. He comments this is the book he wished he’d have read as a teen, and the care and depth of his storytelling fills the novel with truths that we, as adults, can look back on adolescence and wish we’d realized.
The “dark dude” is Rico, a light-skinned Cuban American kid living in New York City in the late ’60’s/early ’70’s. His skin color effectively isolates him from the various ethnic groups in his Harlem neighborhood. The city is closing in on him, school’s a drag, his best friend, Jimmy, is becoming a junkie, his family life is starting to unravel, and to top it all off, his dad is threatening to send him to military school in Florida. Though his dad tells him, “You’re an Americano, never forget that,” Rico feels completely exiled. He doesn’t belong with his family, his fellow Latinos, the whites, the blacks, the druggies, or the grown-ups.
Rico feels like he is running out of options and there’s only one thing to do – go to the country to get his head together. Rico figures his best change at escape is to head to Wisconsin, where his older friend Gilberto has gone to college and is living on a farm; so Rico convinces Jimmy to come along and they hitchhike west. The wide-open spaces make Rico “feel calm in a way [he] didn’t remember ever feeling before.” But even after he establishes a routine, Rico isn’t home among the hippies and farm folk. The work, relaxation, and space do Rico some good, but he still feels like an outcast. His search for identity and answers leads him to one truth—”Life was going to kick your ass sometimes, because, you know what, where you are doesn’t change who you are.”
I was most struck by the distinct tone of the two sections – life in NYC is fast-paced, stressful, confusing and unnerving. Hijuelos captures, like Walter Dean Myers does, the authentic voice of teens trying to make sense of a world they don’t really understand and aren’t ready to handle. Once Rico moves to WI, the tone changes completely to reflect the slow, steady, and spacious life on the farm; the mellow-ness of which brings Rico’s isolation into even sharper focus. References to Huckleberry Finn run throughout the book as Rico and Jimmy make their own way to realizations about life, family, friendship, and the world.
- Posted by Cori