THE FIRST THING SMOKING by Nelson Eubanks

THE FIRST THING SMOKING

Stories
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KIRKUS REVIEW

Seventeen linked stories delineate a Brazilian-American’s rocky path to adulthood.

Several of these tales are terse interlude-vignettes focused on New York and New Jersey street scenes occurring in Latino ethnic enclaves (e.g., “Olinda,” which portrays the musical and sexual energies of “carnaval”; “Five-Star Hotel,” where a trio of prostitutes are hassled by a hotel doorman). The more fully developed stories chronicle in piecemeal (and, occasionally, confusing) fashion stages in the life of biracial Maceo Watson, whom we first encounter (in “Malta Scheffer”) as a nine-year-old stickball player, one of thousands of barrio and ghetto kids dreaming of major-league baseball careers. Newcomer Eubanks has a sharp eye for poor-neighborhood detail (gas shortages and long lines at the pumps in “My Friend Nigel”; a protest organized in behalf of an evicted tenant in “Uptown”), and he creates real dramatic tension in episodes that reveal gradations of status accorded skin colors of varying shades of blackness—even among family members (e.g., in the fine title story). Pieces about the adult Maceo and the personal, educational, and romantic compromises he makes are less interesting—though the concluding “A Lie in Seven Parts,” set in Bahia, vividly evokes Maceo’s confusions as part of an odd ménage including the German woman he loves and a sybaritic sexual predator (who “had a cockload of diseases whether he knew it or not”). The standout here, “Uncle Raymond,” assembles family stories and lies, and the young Maceo’s imperfect understanding of them, into a wrenching portrait of a promising, musically gifted youth “all broken in the head” by years of drug abuse. Eubanks sometimes seems more sociologist than fiction writer, and his episodic structure feels somewhat arbitrary. Nevertheless, it’s a powerful collection.

A companion volume to Junot Diaz’s Drown. Eubanks will write better books, but this one merits serious attention and respect.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-345-45178-3
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: One World/Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2003