Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
With the increasing gentrification of New York City, it’s sometimes hard to imagine the early 1980s in the city, when public officials, both local and national, wrote off huge swaths of the city populated by people of color. News and popular media stereotyped and dehumanized the people of northern Brooklyn, northern Manhattan, and the South Bronx, and unless you were there, you didn’t know that real people with real families walked these streets and inhabited these apartment buildings.
Set in the South Bronx in the summer of 1983, Sofia Quintero’s new novel captures this time through the voices of two 17-year-old boys—old friends who see circumstances pulling them apart. Raymond King, known as Smiles, has just lost his mother, a social worker and strong force in the community, to the complications of sickle cell anemia. Smiles is going into his senior year at an upper-class prep school downtown where he has received a scholarship but, as the only African-American student, doesn’t fit in. Left behind in a rowdy public school is his best friend Guillermo “Willie” Vega, who calls himself Nike and dreams of stardom as a break-dancer. The local gang, which has already drawn several of their old friends, has set its sights on Nike, but he wants to follow the rules and stay out of trouble. Nike sees former community leaders, including an old friend of Smiles’s father, ruined by the crack that the gang sells. It bothers him that his single mother receives welfare, and he blames her as much as his father, who abandoned the family and moved back to Puerto Rico. While Nike is politically conservative and considers material goods—for instance, the latest sneakers—as a sign of success, Smiles is attracted to the radical rhetoric of the Five Percent Nation of Islam and charismatic local leader Qusay, an ex-prisoner once known as Kevin.
The girls at the summer camp where Smiles and Nike work complicate their relationship, particularly Cookie Camacho, who beats Smiles out for the senior counselor position. He accuses the Puerto Rican camp director of favoritism. Nike is attracted to new girl Sara, who introduces him to the world and its conflicts in a way that he had never imagined. Both boys have their preconceived ideas challenged, along with their confidence in themselves. Both lose their dreams and must find a way to regroup and move forward. Above all, this is a story of friendship and community, how in the most neglected places people can come together to help each other and make better lives.
Quintero incorporates Spanish words and 1980s slang seamlessly into the novel, trusting readers to understand words from their context. Food plays a major role in the characters’ lives, and Sara’s unfamiliarity with Nuyorican staples is the first sign that she may not be the person Nike assumes she is:
I say, “The A&P got everything you need. There’s a whole Goya aisle with recaito, sofrito, sazón…” She looks like I just spoke Japanese. “I’m sorry.” Damn, Nike, stop doing shit you have to apologize for. You sound like a doofus. Just chill out. “I forgot that not all Puerto Ricans grow up speaking Spanish, you know.”
The news events of the time—particularly the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps—appear at first to be backdrop for this historical novel but end up playing a major role. The war comes to the South Bronx neighborhood in an unexpected way and in the process, changes Nike’s perspective on the world. Show and Prove is highly recommended.
A shorter version of this review appeared on The Pirate Tree (www.thepiratetree.com).