A Thriller Based in NYC’s Spanish Harlem

by Carey Seal

by Ernesto Quinonez
2000; Vintage Books; 213 pp;
$12 paperback

        Combining keen observation of urban life with a strong narrative and vividly if simply drawn characters, this first novel by a New York elementary school teacher offers a sensitive analysis of the problems and possibilities confronting the Puerto Rican population of Spanish Harlem. A thriller recounting the rise and fall of the druglord and philanthropist Willie Bodega, it transcends genre to provide a glimpse into an urban culture generally ignored by the media.
        The narrator, Julio Mercado, a student at Hunter College, sees his education as a path to the security of a professional career and a middle-class suburban existence. To the dismay of his Pentecostal wife Blanca, he maintains ties with his childhood friend Sapo, now a drug dealer. It is through Sapo that Julio meets Willie Bodega and learns of his far-reaching plans to improve the lives of New York’s Puerto Ricans.
        As the book progresses, Julio realizes that he himself is an integral part of Bodega’s scheme to stage a reunion with a long-lost lover. The coincidences that propel the plot forward often seem contrived, sometimes to the point of defying credulity, yet Quinonez manages to retain the reader’s interest.
        Bodega, who has more than a few similarities with Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, is fascinating and the scenes involving him are well done, but the novel might have benefited from a fuller exploration of his character, especially in view of his thematic importance.
        In the course of recounting Julio’s adventures, Quinonez depicts life in Spanish Harlem with an uncommon realism and immediacy. The novel gives particular attention to the ways in which racism and structural discrimination in the public school system drive kids like Sapo into the criminal world.
        For a reader who, like this reviewer, knows next to nothing about Spanish Harlem, the book’s chief appeal lies in its skillful evocation of a society that those in power have done their best to make the rest of us ignore. By capturing both the vitality and the sadness of Puerto Rican life in New York, Ernesto Quinonez has made his first novel one to remember.

Carey Seal, a recent Gilman School graduate, is on his way to Yale. He did his senior Encounter program at this newspaper.

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This story was published on August 2, 2000.