Dark Dude by Oscar Hijuelos: Book Review

Ever wish you could leave everything and everybody and just start over? Yeah, we all feel that way sometimes. In Dark Dude (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Sept. 08), author Oscar Hijuelos takes us on a fascinating journey with blond-haired Cuban outsider Rico. When the book begins we are immersed in Rico’s New York City neighborhood, which is gritty, edgy, full of broken dreams and potential that never seems to be realized.

Rico isn’t like other kids in his neighborhood. For one thing, he looks white, unlike the rest of his Cuban family, and unlike his many neighbors. For another, he doesn’t even know how to speak Spanish. Like so many of his friends, Rico has dreams, big dreams. But unlike the others, he can’t bare to give his big dreams up. He wants to be a comic book author and to leave the danger and desperation he’s grown up with all behind for a better life.

When his buddy Gilberto actually wins big in the lottery and uses the money to attend college in Wisconsin and to buy a farm, Rico sees a possible way out. Taking his buddy Jimmy along (rescuing Jimmy, really, from a heroin addiction), Rico leaves his family behind, running away to Wisconsin to join Gilberto and grab onto the promise of a better life.

Hijuelos quickly grabs you with Rico’s voice and heart. That, combined with non-stop tension and unusual circumstances that keep popping up along the way, will have readers flipping pages to see what will become of this “Dark Dude” and his dreams. I really enjoyed the novel and recommend it highly to anyone looking for an unusual journey of the heart and mind. One thing that had me a bit off-balance was the way the book seemed to be portrayed in the here and now, even though it clearly wasn’t. By that I mean it seems as if the narrative deliberately avoided saying it was the 1960s, when most writers would establish that right away. I think this may have been conciously done to hook teen readers who are most interested in the present day stories of their peers, and therefore, felt a tad bit manipulative and disorienting to me. The other thing that kept jumping out at me was the use of the “F” word, sort of. I think if you are going to use it, you should use it. But continually saying things like, literally, “mother F–er” and “F–ing crazy” (using dashes instead of all the letters of this word) was a bit bizarre. Again, I suspect it was cleaned up to meet the requirements of the young adult marketplace (especially regarding schools and libraries). Hey, I could be wrong.  Anyway, it was distracting.

But these quirks aside, I felt Dark Dude was original and engaging and wholely worthwhile. So check it out!

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