Abraham Rodriguez, Jr., made his literary debut with the publication of The Boy Without a Flag: Tales of the South Bronx (1992), a modestly paged collection of seven loosely linked stories praised for their gritty, graffiti-colored depiction of the South Bronx, a bullet-battered landscape that leaves its scarring mark on those who grow up walking its streets. Critics applauded Rodriguez’ back-alley ability and his tell-it-like-it-is gift to capture the salsa-driven rhythms of this crack-piped urban battlefield. Some readers believed, however, that while Rodriguez managed to convincingly re-create the true-to-life brutality of these streets, he sometimes failed to illuminate the inner conflicts and unspoken struggles of those left scrambling, roachlike, for a few scattered crumbs of that make-believe American Dream pie. Nevertheless, the strongest stories in The Boy Without a Flag confirmed that Rodriguez was a talented young writer whose voice deserved to be heard.
In Spidertown, his first novel, Rodriguez returns to the South Bronx that he knows so well to tell the story of Miguel, a sixteen-and-a-half-year-old Puerto Rican drug-runner who is trying to make sense out of the chaos that has become his everyday life. Miguel has been lured into a spider’s web of crack cocaine and crime by the promise of fast cars and cheap, meaningless sex: a freedom that can be bought on the South Bronx streets only with money that has been wrung with blood.
Initially, Miguel openly embraced this beat-boy lifestyle without any tinge of sorrow or regret for the life he had left behind. Instead of mourning his lost childhood, Miguel “felt like his life was his own. He could party as late as he wanted, come and go as he pleased. No parents, no rules, no homework. On his own, with his own place, a dope car, money … an exciting job.” That was then, though, back when Miguel was first introduced to Spider, the crack kingpin himself, a blood-sucking druglord who could offer kids-“the guy like ’um young”-a get-rich-quick alternative to what the white world deceived them to believe was an all-inclusive American Dream. In the beginning, Spider made Miguel feel a sense of power and mastery, prompting him to thumb his nose at the world governed by whites with which he had been pressured to comply, a world where Miguel had felt, because he was poor and Puerto Rican, as if he were an utter nobody. Out on the South Bronx streets, a defiant Miguel came to the conclusion that “he didn’t need THEM. They could shove their schools and the 9-to-5 life, the work-hard-it-pays-off life, the read-a-book-and-get-ahead universe.” Miguel was his own man, his own keeper. He was part of Spider’s family now. What more could a boy without a starred-and-striped flag want?
After a while, though, Miguel’s short-sighted perception of Spidertown undergoes a change, thanks, in part, to Cristalena: “a girl with a name like a poem.” What, at one time, in Miguel’s eyes, “looked like the high life”-his own apartment, a souped-up ’68 cherry-red Chevy Impala, seven thousand dollars in cold cash stashed away in a shoebox-suddenly, after he meets Cristalena, loses its candy-coated glow. The possibility of leaving—of doing something else; of working a bonafide, on-the-books kind of job; of living respectfully in an apartment with his beloved Cristalena-squirms its way into Miguel’s heart. As Miguel soon discovers, however, it takes more than love to break away from Spidertown’s sticky grip.
Spidertown, then, chronicles the events that lead up to Miguel’s personal transformation and eventual departure from a world that serves as a prison as well as an escape. Miguel is a boy without a flag, torn between two worlds, though he fits into neither one. As one character puts it: “What happens when he leaves the ghetto? Ain’t he nothing once he steps out of this place? It’s an addiction. You get money an’ big chains an’ guns an’ cars but’chu can’t get out of the ghetto, because the ghetto is where you matter.” This is the conflict at the center of Spidertown, the paradox that lends this story its dimension.
Rodriguez relies on an off-setting ensemble of “good” versus “bad” characters to help dramatize Miguel’s moral dilemma. Miguel is only one of the countless gnats drawn into Spider’s web by dreams of a better way of life. Cristalena is Miguel’s virgin, his antithesis: the woman for whose love he is willing to risk humiliation and a loss of independence. She lives at home, works as a sales clerk in a clothing boutique for minimum wage, attends school and church. Just as her name suggests, she is Miguel’s Christ-figure. Cristalena’s innocence saves Miguel by helping him see through the subterranean darkness he had for so long mistaken as light. She wants Miguel to remember that “this block used to be nice once, little kids playing, old men playing dominoes…. Not now, not anymore. These creeps have stolen it, killed it.” Cristalena functions as a symbol of all that is still good in the world. She is the voice of reason and...
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