Providing a realistic portrait of a young boy becoming a drug addict in the inner city of New York, A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich suggests that there are no simple answers to the problems of addiction, poverty, and crime. A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich is told as a series of brief monologues. Presented in a “documentary” style, the novel depicts each of the main characters telling his or her story in turn. This approach serves both to reinforce the novel’s graphic realism and to illustrate the complexity of the problems that it addresses. All the novel’s characters are distinct individuals, offering their own explanations for Benjie’s problems, justifying their own actions, and, at times, impugning the motives of others. By telling her story in this way, Childress is able to strip away her characters’ self-deceptions and balance every plausible accusation against an equally plausible countercharge.
The novel begins with Benjie’s description of his neighborhood. It is a dismal place: Poverty and drugs are everywhere; rampant crime makes young and old alike afraid to leave their homes; most families have been torn apart by divorce or death. It is important for the reader to see Benjie’s world through this character’s own eyes and to develop sympathy for him at the very beginning of the novel. If Childress did not structure the plot in this way, the reader might be tempted to dismiss Benjie as merely a thief and an addict. As the author suggests, however, Benjie’s situation is quite complicated. While he is, admittedly, a drug user, he also has a number of admirable qualities that make him a likable character.
In the second monologue, Butler Craig indicates that Benjie’s use of drugs is more extensive than Benjie has indicated. Butler mentions that Benjie is now “into stealin” and has sold items belonging to his own family in order to support his habit. Though Butler does not condone Benjie’s behavior, he does express genuine affection for the boy.
One by one, all the characters interpret Benjie’s problem in terms of their own relationship to him. Jimmy-Lee Powell reflects upon the close friendship that he...
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