Jun 9, 2010

Dark Dude by Oscar Hijuelos

Dark Dude by Oscar Hijuelos

Dark Dude tells the story of Rico Fuentes, a geeky, comic-book-loving, Huckleberry Finn-reading and Irish-looking Cuban teenager who lives in New York. Under circumstances I’d rather let you discover for yourselves, Rico decides to leave his home in Harlem to go spend some time in a farm in Wisconsin. One of Rico’s best friends, Gilberto, moved to the Midwest to go to college, and Rico is convinced that some time away from New York is just what he and his other best friend Jimmy really need.

Because of an Irish grandfather somewhere on his ancestry, Rico is the only member of his family who looks white. This, combined with the fact that he barely speaks Spanish (he suffered from a long illness as a kid that kept him in the hospital and away from his family just as he was learning how to speak), makes him feel that he doesn’t quite belong in the Latino community where he’s growing up. Rico’s unusual circumstances give Oscar Hijuelos the chance to explore forms of racism that aren’t often discussed – a “dark dude”, we learn on the first page, is paradoxically a “person who is considered suspect because of his light complexion”.

In addition to dealing with racism against light-skinned people in non-white communities, Dark Dude also deals quite extensively with identity. It deals especially with the development of Rico’s ethnic and cultural identity and with the factors that contribute to his ambivalent feelings about being Cuban. In Wisconsin, Rico is often taken for a white boy, and he realises he doesn’t always want to correct people’s misconception. These misconceptions give him the opportunity to temporarily try on a new identity; to think about how people perceive him and respond to their perception of him, and about how in its turn this influences the way he acts and who he is.

Being mistaken for white can make Rico’s life easier, but can he really ever feel comfortable with leaving a huge part of who he is behind? As the months pass, Rico begins to realise that sometimes living outside a particular context can make you embrace a part of yourself that you had rejected not because of what it is, but exactly because of how it was perceived. This knowledge alone will of course not change how the world responds to him, but perhaps it can make somewhat of a difference.

Dark Dude deals with some extraordinarily difficult questions related to growing up, racism, and ethnic identity. I was particularly impressed with its handling of question of the extent to which Rico’s ambivalence towards his cultural identity was a result of racism from within and outside his community, or a result of his own internalised racism. These things aren’t always easy to separate, and it’s much too easy to absorb the dominant attitudes of those who surround you without even realising you have done so.

This novel doesn’t attempt to give any easy answers to these questions, and it reflects what I imagine is the experience of millions of teenagers. Having said this, I can’t say I loved it unreservedly, mostly because I had quite a bit of trouble connecting with Rico’s voice. Dark Dude is narrated in the first person, and Rico often sounds like he’s hiding behind a façade of some sort, even during his most vulnerable and emotional moments. This made me feel somewhat removed from his story, but I suspect it might be more of a failure on my part than on the part of the novel.

The reason why I’m saying this is because as I thought about why I felt so distant from Rico, I remembered something Nick Hornby once said in one of his Believer columns, about how it’s possible that literature (or some literature anyway) lacks mass appeal exactly because of its penchant for introspective, self-aware and extremely articulate protagonists – when in reality this is only a small percentage of the kind of voices a novelist could strive to capture. Not everyone is highly introspective and analytical, but that doesn’t mean their stories aren’t worth telling. Does my reluctance to connect with Rico have to do with how effectively Oscar Hijuelos captured the voice of a protagonist who doesn’t necessarily deal with his thoughts and emotions in the fluent and highly conscious way I’m used to? It’s something to think about.

What do you think? Is Nick Hornby on to something? Do you notice that you expect the protagonists of the novels you read to be insightful and get impatient or frustrated if they aren’t? Or are you comfortable reading about characters with different levels of openness and self-awareness?

I’m now more curious than ever to pick up Hijuelos’ Pulitzer-winning The Mambo King Plays Songs of Love. It is very wicked of me to take some pleasure in the fact that his venture into YA will inevitably confuse some people? I realise he’s not the first author to do so, though (I love you so, Michael Chabon), and I hope that some others might follow suit. I can easily imagine Junot Díaz writing an awesome YA novel.

Interesting bits:
I thought about that stuff a lot, even when I didn’t want to.
Like every time I walked into a bodega in another neighbourhood and some Latino kids would give me the evil whammy with their eyes, like I had no business being there. Or I’d be in a department store with my Moms, going through the discount bins, and folks would look us over, as if wondering what the Cuban lady was going with the white kid, like she was some kind of maid watching over me. And forget about all the times I’d go down into the Harlem park to play softball: I always brought along “get-jumped” money ‘cause I attracted both Latino and black takeoff artists who saw my white skin as a kind of flashing neon sign that said “Rob me”.
I got jumped so often that I wished I could wear a mask, like a superhero, so that I couldn’t get hassled.

It was kind of exciting at first, any fight being cool as long as you aren’t the one getting your ass kicked in, and I enjoyed seeing the little guy messing up the big guy. A Good-versus-Evil thing. And it took my mind off the BS I’d just been through. For a little while anyway. But something was bugging me. Like hearing the word “spic” over and over again, and just feeling the hatred that Eddie had for Fernando and vice versa. That word hit my ears like a fist, ‘cause it made me think about my Moms and Pops, and all the stories I used to hear about how bad some white folks treated them when they first came to New York and how they were laughed at because they couldn’t speak English and just looked different—the skin thing. So naturally I was rooting for Fernando but feeling weird at the same time, because when it came down to it, I looked more like Eddie than Fernando and that made me feel ashamed as hell.
Other reviews:
The Happy Nappy Bookseller
YA New York

(Have I missed yours?)


  1. When my mom and I drove to San Antonio in March, we listened to the audioversion of Carol Goodman's The Seduction of Water. And the narrator, Iris, was incredibly obtuse, especially for a 40-year-old. She had some good qualities, but she just wasn't all that bright. (Not the sharpest tool in the shed, as my mom said more than once!) And I actually rather enjoyed it; it was so refreshing to have such an ordinary narrator. Did I love her for it? Nope, but I certainly enjoyed her story. And her dimness made her inability to figure out the mystery of her mother completely believable, even though I called it about a third of the way through and kept yelling at the CDs for the rest of the time. lol

    So I find it refreshing sometimes to find a narrator/protagonist that isn't exactly self-aware or quick on the uptake. But I think it has to be a deliberate, consistent choice by the author...no sneaking a different, easier voice in halfway through!

  2. I agree! I quite often get a bit frustrated with the profusion of narrators who are incredibly articulate, prescient and sophisticated. Obviously, novelists are usually highly articulate and thoughtful people, so this is going to affect how they write characters, but the average person is generally driven by emotions and circumstances in their day-to-day life.

    I bang on about this book a LOT, but Morvern Caller by Alan Warner is the perfect example of a deeply emotional and introspective book in which the protagonist is a taciturn woman who never studies her actions. She is living her life, not examining it.

  3. This sounds like an interesting book. The way he looks at internal and external racism sounds fascinating.

    I agree with what you say about the narrator, I think we tend to like someone who sounds like us, or someone that we can relate to. If they work differently it can throw me for a loop sometimes... but I love it, once I get in to it.

  4. I can handle unreliable, snarky, obtuse, or even arrogant narrators; but I find it difficult to connect with a narrator who is hiding behind a facade all the time. Characters who are putting on a show for the rest of the characters are fine; but when it comes to the narrator, at some point, I want to see the truth of him/her, even if it's only in the narration portion.

  5. I think your insights on this book and type of characters that you most like to read about are very perceptive, Nymeth. I, too, tend to connect better with, and am more fond of characters who are very self-aware. I don't like getting all caught up in the mind of a character who doesn't know how to express him/herself towards others and towards themselves, and sometimes the lack of introspection will be the kiss of death for me. It sounds as though this book was a bit hard for you to connect to because of these issues, and I can imagine that I might feel the same way about it.

  6. Ah, so THIS is the book you were talking about! I'm not sure I'd want to read it. I might, but I'm actively trying not to be interested in new books I hear about right now. Tantamount to sticking my fingers in my ears and saying, "I can't hear you!!" :D

  7. I'm not a huge fan of introspective novels, but the issues explored in this one sound fascinating.

  8. This does sound interesting particularly with the issues it explores.

    I'm afraid I'm also not as interested in detached narrators. But I supposed it could be a good lesson in getting into someone else's head.

  9. Wow...seriously lots and lots to think about here. I have a feeling I'd really enjoy this book. The issues of racism and cultural identity from this unique perspective sounds so interesting. But I'm also interested to see what you mean about his voice...because I'm not sure I really understand completely what you mean. I'm wondering if it's something that will even strike me, because I'm not highly introspective or fluent or insightful myself. (And I am not saying that to put myself down, I promise. I don't think the fact that I'm not those things makes me less "worthy" or anything.)

    Anyway, thanks Ana, for yet another fascinating review!!! (Despite what you do to my wish list.)

  10. Eva: Now I want to read that book! Thay sounds like a fascinating reading experience. I agree that it has to be deliberate - I think it definitely was on Hijuelo's case, and he sustained the voice perfectly. In Rico's case, it wasn't that he wasn't smart - he just wasn't upfront about his emotions, not even in private. Which I find is the case with many teen boys (because they're socialised that way, of course!).

    Tea Lady: Adding Movern Caller to my wishlist! I want to get more used to this different kind of voice, because like you said that's true of so many people.

    Amy: I love seeing it done so convincingly, even if it did throw me off at first!

    Trisha: With Rico, I didn't feel that he wasn't showing readers his true self so much as that WAS his true self, you know? That kind of brisk, I'm-a-teen-boy-so-I'm-not-about-to-get-all-sentimental voice seemed to have existed in private. Like I was telling Eva, I do see that in real teen boys, and though I dearly wished they weren't socialised to hide their vulnerability even from themselves, it rang true.

    Zibilee: I think the book was introspective but not articulate, you know? And that's more realistic than if Rico had sounded more sophisticated, but because I'm used to that kind of voice, it threw me off.

    Amanda: Yep :P It did make Wisconcin sound quite lovely!

    Kathy: Then you might actually like it!

    Amy: He wasn't so much detached as kind of brisk, you know? As in.... yeah-this-matters-to-me-so-can-we-please-not-dwell-on-it. It's hard to explain what the voice was like! Like I was telling Eva and Trisha, I think gender plays into it too, and I wish I'd mentioned that in my posy. Anyway, yes, I did appreciate the lesson in getting into someone else's head.

    Debi: You're welcome! :) I completely agree; one way of being isn't inferior to the other at all, which is why I agree with Hornby that there's room for both in fiction. But because I'm not very used to it, it was hard to feel at home in the novel.

  11. ...and by "posy", I obviously mean "post" :P

  12. Double Wow! I have never considered the racism against whiter people of colour by their own. I remember reading about how the light skinned members of families were treated so much better in Alabama than their darker brothers and sisters, yet it never mentioned how the whiter ones were treated amongst their own. In that book, the whiter skinned people were also happy not to contradict other's views of their skin colour. I want to read this book now.

  13. Personally I kind of expect protagonists to be introspective and analytical in books, and have no idea why this wouldn't appeal to most people-although it can definitely go too far. I don't think I have an issue with any other type of viewpoint, as long it works.

  14. Vivienne: It's certainly a side of racism you don't hear about very often, isn't it? I wonder if it might be exactly an effect of the fact that lighter-skinned people of colour tended to be treated better. I can see a lot of room for resentment there.

    Heidenkind: It's been a long time, and I can't quite remember Nick Hornby's argument in detail. So I'll paraphrase vaguely and add some of my own thoughts: I think it could have to do with the fact that not everyone is given to introspection and self-analysis - and in fact, these don't necessarily go hand in hand with intelligence. But introspective people are overrepresented in fiction because they *do* tend to appeal to us bookish folks. However, it could be that more people would be bookish if they felt that fiction acknowledged their own less than perfectly fluent way of dealing with their thoughts and emotions. I'm not saying this is a fact, but it's an interesting possibility, I find.

  15. This sounds like a book I'd thoroughly enjoy. I love coming of age type stories, particularly with protagonists who don't fit in. And I am interested in reading about forms of racism that are not often discussed. Thanks for the wonderful review.

  16. I will have to start paying better attention to the narrators of the books I am reading, to see where they rank on the self-aware-and-introspective scale, and how that affects my opinion of them or my ability to engage with them. Fortunately I have just started keeping a reading journal and will be easily able to keep track.

  17. Stephanie, you're most welcome! I'd love to see what you think of it.

    Jenny: Let me know what conclusions you come to! I'm going to try to start paying more attention as well.

  18. Intra-racial racism is such a disturbing byway of racism. We humans have so many ways to hurt each other -sometimes it seems like our forte.

  19. I like the premise of this one.
    Rico sounds like an interesting character and the book sounds like it touches on some important issues. Great review!

  20. I hope you'll enjoy Mambo Kings. I remember really liking that book but it's been so long since I read that. Oh man. Seems like ages ago now!

    I think I'd probably enjoy this because of the shared culture and I'm sure I'd find some aspects that maybe I may not necessarily relate to but that I could understand.

  21. I've seen some of these issues explored with African Americans but never with a Latino. Interesting! Sometimes I find it irritating when it seems like a character is holding back but I usually just get over it or quit reading.

  22. Mumsy: Sometimes it seems so, yes :\

    Naida: Despite feeling a bit distanced from him, I did find him interesting.

    Iliana: I think I will! And yes, I think there's a lot here that will seem familiar to anyone who has lived between two cultures.

    Jen: In this case, I thought there was a good reason, and that Rico's restraint was a very deliberate choice on Hijuelo's part. which doesn't mean I didn't struggle with it, of course.

  23. Ah you can totaly see that Hornby is talking about 'Slam' with those comments (whether he'd written it yet or was thinking about it) because Sam is sooooo unable to communicate his thoughts, yet so realistic. And I thought that worked really well, but there has to be some leeway, like if your characer can't talk about feelings readers need to be able to see at least a little more introspection in his thoughts otherwise there's no way to connect.

    I think that willingness to try a different kind of voice is one of the few things I really liked about 'Slam' (probably because I suck at verbalising thoughts) so maybe this is one for me.

  24. Jodie, Slam is a perfect example of this, yes! Funnily enough I didn't feel disconnected from Sam like I did from Rico, though. I wonder if knowing an author I loved so much was in the background pulling the strings influenced me?

  25. I just posted my thoughts on both The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love and Beautiful Maria of My Soul. I really didn't like his characters in those two books and I'm wondering if I'd like any of his characters? In these two books I think his main characters really needed to be rather unlikeable in order to portray them accurately for the story being told. I've learned that not liking characters though does not necessarily mean I don't like the book! And I did enjoy reading both books.

  26. I've read this book week. And it was so amazing!!! but I'm going to keep on reading it!


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