When New York City native Rico Fuentes winds up in Wisconsin (the Land of Cheese and Honey), the 15-year-old is a stranger in a strange land, indeed. DARK DUDE, an episodic novel that chronicles the misadventures our hero, is the latest instance of an established novelist entering YA terrain for the first time. Like Sherman Alexie, who brought a Native American perspective to THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN, Oscar Hijuelos brings an outsider's perspective -- in this case, a Latino one in the form of a boy from Cuba who happens to have inherited his Irish grandfather's light-skinned, fair-haired genes.
A sprawling book at 439 pp., DARK DUDE dwells in the Big Apple for its first 125 pages as Hijuelos details Rico's unhappiness in a neighborhood of school shootings, drug deals, and racial strife. When Gilberto, an older brother figure to Rico, wins the lottery and leaves for a college in Wisconsin, doors with a Midwestern perspective open for our young protagonist. The catalyst that finally sends Rico and his drug-addled pal, Jimmy, westward-ho comes when Rico's parents decide to send him to his strict uncle's military academy down in Florida as punishment for repeatedly skipping school.
Once in Wisconsin, the novel settles to a leisurely pace. There is no real sense of rising action and climax; instead, a lazy and interesting narrative based on identity and coming of age plays out as Rico and Jimmy join Gilberto in a sprawling farmhouse of hippie-like lodgers. Rico, who looks as white as a peeled apple, has enough of a wholesome American look to fit in, but he doesn't attend school for fear of being busted and sent home. Instead he takes a graveyard shift job at a gas station in the middle of Nowhere, Wisconsin. Like the miscreants and petty thieves that populate the Mississippi River in THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN (Rico's favorite book), this station brings all sorts of drifters -- some quite dangerous -- to our hero, who quickly learns that bad people don't just live in America's big cities.
Hijuelos ultimately wins readers over with the characterization of Rico, a winsome kid trying to do right in a world of temptation, greed, and crime. He makes his bid for a pretty girl, holds on to his dream of authoring a comic book for DC Comics, and gets used to life on a farm, all while wondering about the parents he left back in New York City. Baby boomers will enjoy the 70s feel of this book, and high school readers will take to Rico's ever-present trials by fire. It may not be destined to be a classic, but ultimately DARK DUDE is worth the ride for fans of Latino and YA literature alike.