Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Alice Childress is a playwright and director as well as a novelist. In 1956, Childress’ play Trouble in Mind received an Obie Award as the year’s best Off-Broadway production. The author’s theatrical experience had an important effect upon A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich. Rather than telling her story through a mixture of narrative and dialogue, Childress relied upon a series of dramatic vignettes to build her novel layer by layer. Each character’s point of view serves to change the reader’s perspective toward Benjie and his addiction. Like the audience of a play, the readers of this novel see the action not through the eyes of a single individual but through the collective experience of a large number of characters.

The graphic realism of A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich surprised many readers when the novel first appeared. Although intended for a teenaged audience, the novel contains obscenities, racial epithets, slang, and explicit references to violence and drug use. Childress’ intention was not to shock her readers but to permit them to see the world through Benjie’s eyes. While Benjie is only thirteen years old, he lives in constant fear of being murdered, robbed, or raped. He has been exposed to suffering more severe than that known by many adults. It should not be surprising, therefore, that Benjie temporarily succumbs to the troubles that surround him. The challenge facing Benjie is how to...

(The entire section is 434 words.)