Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Spidertown is Rodriguez’s first novel but not his first book. In 1992, he published The Boy Without a Flag, a critically acclaimed collection of short stories about Puerto Rican Americans in the South Bronx. Several of the characters in Spidertown have prototypes in the stories. For example, Spider is a minor character in “Birthday Boy,” and Careta makes an appearance in “The Lotto.” Miguel is similar in many ways to Angel in “Birthday Boy” and to the narrator of “The Boy Without a Flag.” Likewise, Cristalena resembles Dalia in “The Lotto.” It is obvious that Rodriguez borrowed situations and characters from his first book to create continuity between the works.

As a Bildungsroman, or apprenticeship novel, Spidertown is a descendant of such established novels as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-1796; Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, 1824), Dickens’s David Copperfield (1849-1850), W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1915), James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), and Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel (1929). These novels all trace the youthful development of a male protagonist, often an artist or a writer.

By having his characters discuss Oliver Twist, Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), and Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), Rodriguez creates another context for his novel. These works depict the underbelly of society and constitute sophisticated protest literature, of which Spidertown is an example. It is interesting to note that the literary tradition represented by these works is distinctly male, though not exclusively white or American.

Finally, Spidertown belongs to a body of recent literature by Latino authors. As a New York Puerto Rican writer, Rodriguez has an affinity with Nicholasa Mohr and Piri Thomas, who also write about Puerto Rican Americans in the South Bronx. Spidertown has been compared to Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets (1967), an autobiography of one man’s struggle with drugs and crime in New York. Rodriguez’s novel can also be grouped with the works of other Latino authors, such as Mexican American author Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street (1989) and Cuban American author Oscar Hijuelos’s The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989), which won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize in fiction.