A white boy in a majority-black Boston middle school gets an education on race and friendship.
This debut novel is set in 1992 and narrated by David Greenfeld, aka Green, the son of middle-class parents who send him to a public middle school in the name of progressive politics. “They ‘believe in public schools,’ even when they’re mad ghetto,” he explains early, deploying the hip-hop slang that distinguishes this otherwise fairly conventional coming-of-age story. Bullying? Check: his whiteness makes him a target, and he’s quickly stripped of the expensive, gaudy outfit he buys to earn some street bona fides. Cross-cultural friendship? Check: Green bonds with Marlon “Mar” Wellings, a black classmate from the nearby projects, over Celtics basketball and a mutual interest in passing the entrance exam to Boston Latin high school. Budding self-awareness? Check: Green’s growing awareness of Marlon’s background is matched by his own enlightenment in matters both primal (sex) and intellectual (his Jewish background). Graham-Felsen, who has a similar background to Green’s, writes sensitively about the multiple ways racism manifests in this milieu: Green and Mar’s snow-shoveling hustle only succeeds when Mar isn’t visible to white clients, and Green is oblivious to how Marlon is treated as suspect at a Harvard alumni gathering. Throughout, Celtics star Larry Bird serves as Green’s spirit animal and symbol for the narrative where whiteness represents difference, and Graham-Felsen avoids the biggest danger by making sure Green’s language never feels forced. Green’s delivery is often witty (“What do white girls like to talk about? The Gap? Horses?”). But the author’s focus on Green’s quotidian concerns about school and girls limits attention on Marlon, who has the more dramatic story, and other threads concerning religion, Green’s quirky brother, and his family’s connection to the Holocaust feel extraneous and unfinished.
A well-turned if familiar race-themed bildungsroman.