(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 901 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich traces the devastating effects of drugs on its principal character, Benjie Johnson, his family, and society. Born into a poor family in the ghetto of Harlem, Benjie wanders aimlessly into the jaws of destruction. Benjie has been taught never to be “chicken,” so when he is challenged into taking drugs, he responds by showing his friends that he can take heroin without becoming a casualty. The issues of identity and the quest for wholeness that surround Benjie’s motivation for taking drugs become significant in the light of the fact that the novel is set in the period immediately following the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich mirrors urban ghetto life, depicting African Americans who seem fragmented and alienated because of race, gender, and class barriers.

The novel opens with Benjie trying to convince himself that he is not a junkie and that he can give up heroin at any time. He suffers from depression because his mother loves Craig Butler, a struggling but dignified maintenance man whom Benjie feels has replaced him as head of the house. While Butler tries to act as a positive role model and strong stepfather for Benjie, the youth moves to discredit and to enrage him at every turn.

Benjie copes with feelings of displacement by associating with gang members, who influence him to experiment with drugs. Benjie smokes marijuana until one...

(The entire section is 583 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich examines questions of human relationships, self-image, racial identity, and personal commitment...

(The entire section is 179 words.)