(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The Boy Without a Flag: Tales of the South Bronx is a first book of fiction from Abraham Rodriguez, Jr., a young Puerto Rican American writer whose greatest strength is his ability to capture the salsa-driven rhythms and late-night bodega rap sessions of a streetcorner posse in a quick-tongued prose style that is searingly raw and jagged-edged. These are gritty, graffiti-colored stories that reach right for the jugular, working gradually down toward the heart. Rodriguez showers light on those who live invisibly, shoved to the side, into the guttered margins, fallen between the cracks.

These stories, Rodriguez himself has declared, are “about the rancid underbelly of the American Dream. These are the kids no one likes to talk about.… I want to show them as they are, not as society wishes them to be.” In at least two of these tales—the title story and “Birthday Boy,” a story of adolescent awakening into a life of crack dealing and two-bit crime—Rodriguez goes a step further, delving deeper beneath the skin. Not only does he re-create the true-to-life brutality overriding the lives of these characters, but also he manages to illuminate the inner conflicts, the unspoken struggles, of those caught in the cross fire, those left scrambling, roachlike, for a few measly crumbs of that mythical American Dream pie. The “boy without a flag” and the cast of characters that flesh out the rest of this collection linger in the memory with the persistence of seemingly innocuous encounters with complete strangers that continue to haunt us.

The narrator of “The Boy Without a Flag” is a precocious eleven-year-old schoolboy who writes “unreadable novels” (including a biography of Hitler) and reads books as “fat as milk crates.” He refuses to stand up to salute the American flag during a school assembly, an act of defiance that, he hopes, will impress his father, a frustrated poet and Puerto Rican nationalist who has planted the seeds of rebellion in his young son’s highly malleable mind. As the American flag enters the auditorium, unfurling majestically (meanwhile, the lone-starred Puerto Rican flag “walked beside it, looking smaller and less confident. It clung to its pole…”), the narrator flashes back to a time when his father sat on the edge of his bed, yelling about Chile, cursing about what the CIA had done there. “I watched that Yankee flag making its way up to the stage…father’s scowling face haunting me, his words resounding in my head.… Everyone rose up to salute the flag. Except me.”

As it turns out, though, the plan backfires, and the boy’s father, when summoned to the school by Miss Marti, the militant, pig-faced assistant principal, is nothing but meekly apologetic and self-critical for his son’s “crazy” anti-Uncle Sam behavior. “I never thought a thing like this could happen,” he says. “My wife and I try to bring him up right.” His father, the one person the boy wishes to impress, to whom he looks for approval, abandons him. The boy is left alone to come to terms with his father’s betrayal, which triggers his preadolescent passage into the disillusion that we are all strangers, both parents and children alike—that we are alone in this world, even when we are together. “I felt like I was falling down a hole,” he says. “My father, my creator, renouncing his creation.” Years later, though, he comes to the understanding that his father has, in fact, provided him with a most valuable lesson. He has learned that he must break away from his father’s sphere of influence; that he must find his own means of independence. In the process of assimilating into that cauldron known as the melting pot, ethnicity, the salt-and-pepper seasoning of identity, is lost, washed away into a tasteless, watered-down broth. The narrator works his way up from this epiphany, and it is clear that he has pledged allegiance to no one but himself, “away from the bondage of obedience.”

This is an eye-widening lesson in the young boy’s life, and he is not alone. All the characters in this collection are, in one way or another, forced to grow up too fast. This loss of innocence happens, it seems, overnight: a wing-clipped flight into the cold-neon corridor of broken dreams, where compromise is the greatest common denominator, the lone exit, and the ideals of youth are bullied into silence.

In “Birthday Boy”—a recklessly fast-paced narrative that reads like a runaway train—thirteen-year-old Angel raps off a regressive account of a day two years earlier. One afternoon, home early from school, he nonchalantly “walked in” on his mother and his uncle. The secret is safe with him, at least for a while, but when his father finally finds out, the results are explosive. The father begins drinking heavily and repeatedly beats both mother and son, until one day the mother escapes. Angel sticks around, for a time, though it reaches the point, finally, that he has no choice but to leave. “[W]hen he said, ‘I’m gonna kill you!’ in his boiler-room Spanish, I made for the exit.” From there, Angel goes to the streets, often sleeping in crack houses “cause sometimes you gotta sleep in strange places when friends can’t come through with a crib.” His mentor, a boy named Spider, apprentices Angel into a life of drugs, petty theft and burglary, and casual sex. As in several other stories in the collection, pregnancy is an unwanted accident, something that simply seems to “happen.” Angel recounts that his “steady,” Gloria, “lay a real bomb on me just last...

(The entire section is 2269 words.)