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...
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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 night”—the bomb being that she is pregnant. It is left ambiguous as to what happens to the “bomb” in this situation. What happens to Angel, though, is quite clear. After botching a robbery that his girl-on-the-sneak Miriam clues him in on, Angel ends up spending his first teenage birthday in jail. When it comes time for Angel to phone someone into whose custody he would be released, there was “only one person I could call”: Spider. Angel’s passage into adolescence is now complete, a full-fledged flight into a web from which there is no escape.
At the beginning of “No More War Games,” Nilsa is, for the moment at least, still a child. Yet, as her best friend Cha-Cha reminds her, “God, you gonna be twelve next week. You gotta start growin’ up. You can’t keep playing war games forever.” The war games to which she is alluding are the day-to-day child’s play of a South Bronx tomboy, games that include hanging out in deserted lots “brimming with shattered glass and the odor of raw decay…peppered with swaying lanes of tall grass…growing wild and uncut,” days spent ambushing the “NO GIRLS ALLOWED clubhouse on the lot across the street.” It is high time, Nilsa concedes, to start playing other types of games, the games grown-ups play, such as sex and wearing makeup. Cha-Cha had turned twelve the week before, and already Nilsa noticed the changes. “For starters, Cha-Cha hadn’t come to the yard all week. She started seeing those older boys from as far away as Jackson Avenue. She painted her nails. Dark red.… She didn’t want to get dirty.”
Like the boy in “The Boy Without a Flag,” Nilsa is a child straddling the invisible borderline dividing innocence from experience. She is caught in mid-stride, standing in limbo, searching for conviction, a sign to tell her which road will take her where she wants to go. She looks to Cha-Cha as her point of reference, a model, and she comes to the conclusion that “I guess I should dress up. I guess my pants should be tighta, I mean, these shorts are pretty tight, but they’re not sharp. They’re little girl shorts, like f’ gym. Not sexy.” Nilsa’s migration into womanhood, into the world of skin-tight jeans and lip gloss, is dramatized as a sexual ambush in which she attempts to capture her first kiss. She corners her first conquest, Patchi, one of the neighborhood boys with whom she once played “war games,” turns him into her “prisoner,” and then tries to muscle him into giving her a kiss. The kiss never comes, however, and Nilsa is left unnerved, deadened even, by the experience. “The whole place looked and smelled different. Something was gone forever.”
When Nilsa descends, fatigued, “broken and delicate,” she is no longer a child with a voice “carried by the warm breezes.” Her descent, her fall, into sexuality already is tainted by a sordid drugstore cheapness, and her realization that “there would be no more war games” is overshadowed by the inescapable fate of premature motherhood that seems to hover above, waiting to descend.
Motherhood’s premature descent is the prevailing theme in three of the remaining five stories. “The Lotto” tells the story of Dalia, a young girl haunted by a recurring dream in which babies keep popping out of hats. The dream itself possesses a cartoonish quality, yet when viewed in the context of Dalia’s situation, it is clear why she awakens in tears, screaming for her boyfriend Ricky, who has been nowhere to be found since Dalia, five days ago, had told him the news “about throwing up and being weak-kneed and dizzy and scared.” Enter Elba, “a short, curvy girl with dark, curly hair” who “talked real loud, catty and chatty.” Elba and Dalia had recently become close friends, “holding unofficial races to see who could get a boyfriend first.” What they didn’t expect is that they would both be forced to take a pregnancy test that, unlike a pop quiz in Geography, could possibly affect the rest of their lives. Dalia is blessed by the luck of the draw. She, in a sense, wins a lotto that has no monetary value, though it is, all the same, priceless. Elba is not so lucky. She “looked as if she had just lost fifty million dollars.” What she has really lost is her innocence, her childhood, her future. The story ends as Elba descends into motherhood.
The last story in the collection, “Elba,” picks up where “The Lotto” left off, forming somewhat of a diptych, a before-and-after framework that allows readers to follow the progression of Elba’s demise, from a carefree childhood to single motherhood trapped in a window-perched world where she feels “old and lonely and abandoned, a lifer in a prison cell waiting for the chair,” looking down at a world from which she is now distanced, a world lost, where “laughter would drift up to her while she…washed dishes or changed little Danny’s diapers.” Readers watch Elba struggle with her new role as mother, and her story recounts the steps leading up to “the baby,” including her courtship with Danny, a courtship limited by a world in which romance is reduced to this: “Two days after entering the eighth grade…he lifted her up and carried her through dark hallways as he had seen men do in old movies on TV. He carried her down steps and over decaying planks of wood, nails sticking out of them like teeth. He carried her over a cracked threshold.… They didn’t notice the rotting wood smell at all.”
It comes as no surprise, then, that Elba, as a way of seeking symbolic retribution against the baby’s father—against the imprisonment of motherhood—decides to “jet” back into the world that has been stolen away, feeling momentarily “satisfied…as she made her way down the creaking stairs in her high heels,” leaving her wailing baby behind in her wake. This fade-away image of Elba’s descent creates a resonating link with the last lines from “The Lotto,” in which Elba races down the stairs from Dalia’s apartment, “her sneakers thumping as if they belonged to a happy little kid on her way to play house.” It is clear, though, that Elba’s “house” is anything but happy. Rodriguez’s use of this imagistic detail, the side-by-side contrast pairing a child’s sneakers with the spiked high heels of a woman, is perhaps the most graceful, the subtlest stylistic touch in the collection. It is a beautiful stroke, a telling moment, on which note the book comes to a close, promising readers that, if anything, Rodriguez’s craft in the art of fiction is on the ascent.
A first book of fiction can be expected to have its awkward moments, much in the way that Rodriguez’s adolescent characters stumble haphazardly and oftentimes fall gracelessly into the adult world for which they are unprepared. Sentences such as “Her eyes bored holes through me” or “I went through the motions like a robot” are, it is true, hard to stomach. Still, the successes of this book—Rodriguez’s sense of the South Bronx, a place that inhabits his characters, brought to life with an affection, a sympathy that is in no way sentimental—cancel out the scattering of stylistic shortcomings. Rodriguez’s depictions of lost childhoods are true and brutal. He is a writer driven by the impulse to tell the stories belonging to those who are voiceless, whose lives have been snuffed out, sucked marrowless, ground to the bone. Their stories deserve to be heard.
Sources for Further Study
Kirkus Reviews. LX, April 15, 1992, p. 494.
Library Journal. CXVII, October 15, 1992, p. 103.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 27, 1992, p. 12.
The New York Times Book Review. September 27, 1992, p. 17.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, May 18, 1992, p. 63.
World and I. VII, October, 1992, p. 347.