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Hijuelos, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, has said that his first YA novel is a novel he wished he'd read as a teen. His themes are classic-alienation, the search for identity-but his approach is pure Hijuelos: Cuban-American, musical and very, very funny.
Rico Fuentes, his 15-year-old narrator, is a "dark dude" in late-'60s Harlem, a Cuban-American so light-skinned that, he says, he carries " '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.' " His best buddy Jimmy, who illustrates Rico's "homegrown" comic-book stories about superheroes like "El Gato" and "the Latin Dagger," is becoming a junkie. Rico's mother pretends not to understand his English, blaming him for the childhood illness that put the family in debt. Kids get shot at school ("an incident involving gunplay," as the principal describes it) and his dad wants to send him to his uncle's military school in Florida.
Rico, an outsider par excellence, is good at finding paths still further out. He's got Huckleberry Finn from literature as one type of guide and Gilberto from the neighborhood as another. Gilberto, "the big brother I never had," has won the lottery and used it toward tuition at Milton College in rural Wisconsin. Grabbing Jimmy, Rico lights out for Gilberto's place, in search of his freedom, like Huck and Jim. Hijuelos gives Rico months on a communal farm with hippies, a small-town girlfriend with a cop brother, and encounters with racists before his a-ha! moment ("Where you are doesn't change who you are"). Like Dorothy returning from Oz(an adventure also referenced here), the inevitability of the conclusion doesn't matter: it's the smooth, jazzy flow of the narration, the slides between Rico's rootlessness and the book's strong sense of place that count. Ages 12-up. (Sept.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.