MI BARRIO, SU BARRIO, NUESTRO BARRIO: A review by Mike Lee
by Ernesto Quiñonez
by Paul Beatty,
It is rare that two novels come out about the same place and time, this being Spanish Harlem. It is also next to impossible that two authors can create two books evoking the same angels and demons while creating two distinctly different main characters.
In Bodega Dreams, we catch a fleeting glimpse of the illusory urban revolutionary utopias of the past laid to rest amidst the valedictory of aging Young Lords and Nuyorican poets. Ernesto Quiñonez has created a fast-paced superlative novel with deep, endearing characters, a valuable history lesson, a cautionary tale and a Wagnerian opera all wrapped around the persona and acts of the Gatsby-like Willie Bodega, a drug kingpin using his massed wealth from drug-dealing to build a lasting infrastructure for his community. Bodega is a mess of complexities, a former revolutionary driven by guilt, obsessed to elevate his community with ill-gotten profits.
Surrounding Bodega and living his dreams are an array of characters bound up in the aspirations and hopes of a neighborhood. The people who inhabit Quiñonez's Spanish Harlem universe are refreshingly vibrant and real. They come away with a wisdom gained from the unveiling of the possibilities inherent in dreams and the willingness of someone dealing back a solid.
In Tuff, Paul Beatty presents a different picture of mi barrio, one lacking the ministrations of a Willie Bodega. On a stoop on East 109th Street, existing in the same world as Willie Bodega but in a different universe lolls Winston "Tuffy" Foshay, a spoiled, selfish sophisticated lumpenintellectual with a passion for Japanese art films and Hong Kong shoot-'em-ups. Tuffy is a hustler with an agenda to protect his own (this postmodern bohemian player has a helluva stock portfolio). Tuffy has a strong sense of Am, loves his baby son and his college-going wife while barely tolerating his poet ex-Panther father, a shattered man who sees Tuffy as just another prop in his performance pieces. The irony in their relationship is that both are so annoyingly self-centered.
Just when Tuffy settles into life-time of comfortable nihilism and wet work like his Hong Kong killer heroes he is inspired to run for a city council seat. What follows is a hilarious journey into hypocrisy, of glad-handing politicians expansive in their vapidity, and an increasingly confused and distant Tuffy. While Tuffy may find redemption at the end, this remains on his timetable. Because unlike Bodega, Tuffy's dreams stop at the bottom of his stoop. Such is the contemporary "realist."
While Bodega Dreams ends on a note of lyrical hope and pensive anticipation, in Tuff a canvas of absurd confusion beckons as bored election workers tally the write-in votes.
However, both novels share a sense of Spanish Harlem, evoking a wonderland fueled by the passions of its collective soul. The real story is the neighborhood, the truest sense of home.