A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich

by Alice Childress
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 901

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.

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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 and Benjie once had; he regrets that Benjie’s use of heroin has caused a gulf to form between them. Benjie’s grandmother feels that the use of drugs can only be cured through prayer and intense religious faith. Nigeria Greene, one of Benjie’s teachers, sees addiction as resulting from the oppression imposed by whites upon all African Americans. Benjie’s mother is saddened by her son’s inability to speak openly about his problem; at the same time, she reveals her own inability to convey her true feelings to Benjie.

All the characters grasp some part of Benjie’s situation, but none of them sees it in its entirety. Childress wants the reader to understand that many factors have caused Benjie to experiment with drugs. While he cannot solve his problems until he admits his own responsibility, the poverty and violence of his neighborhood have also been a major factor in making drugs available to him.

When Benjie arrives at school one day obviously under the influence of drugs, Nigeria Greene and Bernard Cohen set aside their personal differences in order to help the boy. They take Benjie to the principal of the school and arrange for Benjie to enter a drug-treatment program. This quick action brings about a temporary improvement in Benjie’s situation. Nevertheless, Benjie still finds it difficult to accept Butler as a replacement for his natural father. He regards Butler as a failure and treats him with contempt. The two of them quarrel, and Benjie again begins to think about buying heroin. Finding no money in the house, he pawns Butler’s only overcoat and suit. This theft proves to be the last straw for Butler. He leaves Rose and moves into a different apartment in the same building. This decision deprives Benjie of one of the few male role models from whom he could have learned.

A short while later, Butler suddenly feels that he is not alone in his new apartment. As he looks around, he catches sight of Benjie stealing yet again. Benjie panics and goes to the roof in an attempt to cross over to the next building. When Benjie slips, Butler grabs him and saves his life. This heroic action and the drug-related death of one of his friends lead Benjie to ask for help in solving his problem.

One night when Benjie cannot sleep and is again tempted to buy heroin, he writes “BUTLER IS MY FATHER” over and over on a sheet of paper, waiting for the craving to pass. He places this paper in the pocket of Butler’s new suit but, on the following day, attempts to retrieve it. Though Butler never mentions it, he has taken the paper, and Benjie knows that he must have read it. He realizes that Butler is “cool,” the hero for whom he had long been hoping.

The novel ends ambiguously, as Butler waits for Benjie to report to his new drug-treatment center. Benjie is late, and the reader is led to wonder whether Benjie has succumbed yet again to the drugs that have almost killed him. Childress herself provides no answers, and readers are left to draw their own conclusions.

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