Bodega Dreams BOOK review [Ernesto Quiñonez]

Book Reviews
Bodega Dreams BOOK review [Ernesto Quiñonez]
Mar 14, 2000, 23:41

BODEGA DREAMS by Ernesto Quiñonez; Vintage Contemporaries, 2000

I was intrigued: Quiñonez is being touted as the leading ray in a new wave of urban Latino writers and this, his first novel, has been described as an ingenious bit of ethnic neo-noir. But this hits me as being more in the non-noir vein of Bernard Malamud's (The Assistant; The Fixer) tales of low-rent desperation than the nail-biting nerve-fuck of Jim Thompson (against who all others are judged). Set in today's Spanish Harlem, it does, however, have the requisite labyrinth plot twists and the classic “crime does not pay” lesson/ending. And it's not too shabby for a first novel, at that.

Our boy, Chino, has managed to steer clear of the path of drugs and crime taken by most of his peers, instead marrying a Catholic girl and setting his sights on college. But, through his delinquent, high-school protector Sapo, he gets caught up in the world of Willie Bodega, an ex '60s radical who uses his profits from crack traffic to better the neighborhood. With the aid of his lawyer partner, Bodega gives student loans, converts burnt-out buildings to budget housing, helps out new businesses, even backs a Salsa music museum, all the while remaining unseen and only a mythic name to those he assists. Starry-eyed and beaming, he espouses his dream of elevating Hispanic America from its imposed squalor and of reuniting with an old flame from the '60s—who just happens to be Chino's aunt. At first, Chino writes off Bodega and his operation as pure folly, but he inevitably finds himself drawn into a world which offers hope for his people—and jeopardizes his own future. In return for a new apartment, he agrees to serve as romantic liaison, doing his best to rationalize his involvement with the benevolent drug lord and keep it all on the level. But the fallout from mysterious, seemingly unrelated events pulls him deeper into the mire. Blanca, Chino's pure-as-cane-sugar wife, is his conscience, always a reminder of what's really at stake. God knows I've read enough of this hardboiled stuff, but I didn't really see the big twist coming at the end of this one. Seems so obvious now, I feel quite the pud. Good job.

Only real problem I had was a scene where Chino, being questioned by police, was a little on the James Dean side. Tough back-talk from such a bookish character was difficult to swallow. Minor gripe.

Quiñonez clearly abides by the most important rule of his craft: Write What You Know. This is where he's from, the characters a reflection of people he's grown up with. This is how they live, how they talk. No, I don't hail from Spanish Harlem. But I've been around enough individuals who do, and I was uncannily reminded of several of them during the course of this book. It's obvious that Chino and the author are one and the same. In the story, Chino is in college (majoring in literature), wishing others in his community would choose a similar path. Quiñonez still lives in New York, teaching bilingual fourth grade in the public school system.

If you're a fan of classic crime-noir, this could be a little on the soft side. But if you've plowed through most of the classics, this'll make a pleasant detour.

-Peter Aaron

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