OVELS LIKE Chulito don't come around very often, so it's only fair to warn you that this review is an unashamed love letter to a perfect literary dish.
Chulito, by Charles Rice-González, plunges us head first into a Latino neighbourhood in the Bronx, where we're fully immersed in Catholic guilt, bodegas, highly strung Latina mamas, street thugs, and a lot of ¿Qué pasa.
Also taking in the gay youth culture of Manhattan's piers, Chulito is a coming-of-age, coming out love story of tough, sexy, hip-hop loving Chulito (literally, "cutie"), and the colourful characters who populate his block. Popular with everyone in the neighbourhood - including enigmatic drug dealer Kamikaze - Chulito is an alpha-male in the making. Then there's Carlos, Chulito's best friend until they hit puberty, and people started calling Carlos a pato: a faggot. Chulito rejects Carlos and becomes best friends with Kamikaze, but when Carlos comes home after his first year away at college, Chulito's worlds collide...
Rice-González lovingly depicts this poor Bronx neighbourhood in the kind of detail that leaves you feeling like you were there. He then populates Chulito's world with a vivid cast of characters: the Auto glass guys, gay Julio in his travel agency, Looney Tunes on the corner, Puti the broken drag queen... They all leap off the page. Chulito is the perfect summer novel, bursting with Latino pride. But the real pleasure is for the reader: I couldn't put this sizzling tale down for a minute. A major factor is Rice-González's rendering of conflicted 16-year-old Chulito ("a Latino, hip hop version of Michelangelo's David"), a thoroughly engaging character who might, in less skilled hands, have come across as a vapid jerk. González invites us to fall in love with Chulito - as much as Carlos does - and succeeds. As the novel progressed, I found myself frantic with worry for Chulito, and subsequently, Chulito and Carlos' burgeoning love. You'll fall head over heels, you'll care, and trust me, you'll be left bereft when it's all over. The very last scene is a poetic, cinematic masterstroke; quite possibly, one of the most beautiful things I've ever read. (Over a week later, Chulito still hasn't been returned to the bookcase - I keep rereading that perfect last scene.)
This vivid, good-hearted book filled me with joy, and when it was all over, I had to fight the urge to start all over again. Chulito moved me, and as is fitting for a novel about a 16-year-old's gay boy's coming of age, thrilled me, toyed with me, and slapped me around for good measure. Thanks to Mr Rice-González, a little part of my heart will always belong to Hunts Point, Bronx, New York.
Next time: We check out "The Beauty Of Men" by Andrew Holleran.
Read an interview with author Charles Rice-González.
Charles Rice-González: Official website.