July 04, 2012

Review: Chulito: A Novel

Chulito: A Novel
Chulito: A Novel by Charles Rice-González

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The first part of this novel starts out very promising, told in an excellently rendered, authentic-sounding voice from the the point-of-view of the main character, Chulito, a just-turned 16-year-old street-tough Puerto Rican gangsta thug living in the insular neighborhood of Hunts Point in the Bronx. For all his macho posturing, Chulito is actually rather sweet and funny, and Rice-Gonzales gives him an excellent eye for detail and snappy, believable dialogue, both internal and external. He's also a "pretty nigga," with everyone around him mentioning his skinny gorgeousness regularly. This specialized Bronx world springs vividly to life and it's quite engrossing to join Chulito in a setting in the hood that so rarely gets this kind of even-handed attention.

But Chulito has a difficulty that sets him apart from his rough, hyper-masculine friends who constantly hang out on the corner of his block -- his best childhood friend who grew up upstairs from Chulito, the intelligent and kind Carlos, recently came out as openly gay before he left for college on Long Island. Chulito didn't handle that revelation so well: spurred on by his buddies, he threw a bottle at a guy Carlos brought back to the neighborhood on a date. And the real issue is that when Chulito saw Carlos's date, he felt overwhelmingly jealous.

Eventually, Chulito manages to get back into Carlos's good graces, and a streetwise romance blossoms slowly between them, with the big question becoming whether or not Chulito will man up and show his love for Carlos openly in a dangerously homophobic neighborhood.

There is another thing Chulito has to handle: his startlingly intimate relationship with Kamakaze, the flashy drug dealer who has taken Chulito under his wing. Early in the book, a jaw-dropping threeway bisexual sex scene with Kamakaze and a female hooker the dealer has hired to deflower Chulito ignites the pages with some of the most erotic action I've ever read. It's hot, and unfortunately much hotter than anything Chulito has got going on with Carlos.

That's one of my biggest issues with the book: Carlos himself is too much of a bland goody-goody to make much of an impression. His main function seems to be a representation of acceptable gay living, and Carlos is given to "wise" pronouncements and basic psychological insight and a rather corny romantic approach. I don't feel like I got to know Carlos very well at all, or to see him clearly, despite Chulito's mooning over him for hundreds of pages. Carlos and Chulito are kind of sweet together, but I didn't really get them as a couple, despite their entangled childhood backstory appearing in occasional flashbacks. It's difficult to shift gears from the blistering sex Chulito experiences with Kamakaze to the timid, tame puppy love he shares with Carlos.

I believe the author also makes a mistake by suddenly and awkwardly switching to Carlos's POV halfway through the book for a few sections, and then doing so again a little later. It doesn't make Carlos any more interesting, and it breaks the spell of Chulito's entertaining voice.

The neighborhood and it's inhabitants stay fascinating all the way through, but by the end of the book, the tone has shifted to a simplistic primer on gay self-acceptance, and becomes dismayingly conventional and preachy. After a while, Chulito's voice gets lost, too, overwhelmed by what sounds like a therapist or counselor rather than a sexy, funny, and charming Latino street thug. The final showdown with the dudes in the neighborhood is told well in an exciting scene near the end, but even with that spot of sudden violence, the conclusion is disappointingly and rather unbelievably warm and fuzzy and predictable in a self-help story sort of way.

I'd recommend the book for it's terrific and rare portrayal of a rarefied and difficult world of experience, and for the character of Chulito himself, who is pretty damn lovable, prickly, and fascinating all the way through. But as a sustained piece of literature, the book loses track of its unique tone, and undermines its own tough integrity with platitudes by the end.

No comments: