I grabbed Dark Dude because 1) I'm taking a brief hiatus from my usual SFF fare and Dark Dude is not SFF, and 2) I'd read The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love ages ago and liked it a lot so figured I couldn't go wrong with Oscar Hijuelos. But beyond that I knew nothing of the book, didn't even bother to read the dust cover blurbs or summary.
At the outset, the novel takes place in a Harlem neighborhood of the 1960s and is about a Cuban teen whose white skin, a genetic fluke, sets him apart from other Hispanics in his neighborhood but who, at the same time is disgusted by the thought of being "white." Though I've only briefly visited New York and I've never been to Harlem, the Harlem in Dark Dude seemed familiar from other literature -- full of energy and life but tainted by poverty, alcoholism and drug addiction.
When Rico's friend Gilberto wins the lottery, he at first gives away a lot of the money to his neighbors and buys a few nice things. But then Gilberto he decides that he's going to invest in his future -- he tells Rico that he's leaving Harlem to attend college at a small liberal arts school in Wisconsin, specifically Milton College.
When I came across this development, I felt a little woozy and disoriented. I grew up just outside of Milton, Wisconsin. A tiny town, once a railroad hub, and--pre-Civil War, an important hub on the Underground Railroad--that now largely serves as a kind of bedroom community for workers at the nearby GM plant in Janesville, WI. Discovering that Oscar Hijuelos would have ever heard of such a place, much less set the bulk of one of his novels there, left me reeling. What's more, Hijuelos initially describes the Janesville/Milton area as a kind of pastoral paradise.
Growing up there, and dreaming every day of escape, I did not consider the area a paradise of any sort. I thought of it as a cultural wasteland, populated by the empty-headed folks who actually liked the music on the radio, all country and top 40--and who thought only of the next opportunity to get drunk with their friends. In fact, when I left for college, I left pretty much for good, coming home no more than a few days at a stretch unless I had absolutely nowhere else to go. At the time, I couldn't imagine anyone, and certainly not a teenager from Harlem (Rico eventually joins Gilberto), wanting to escape to Janesville or Milton. I would never have bought into the premise of Dark Dude.
But, age changes things. The truth is, miserable as I was, or acted, the area was something of a paradise for me. The pastoral part, anyway. I put thousands of miles on my used Schwinn riding those country roads and I, like Rico, learned what hard work was. I might still not find myself among "my people," but then I did have a small group of friends who seemed to "get" me even if they didn't completely share my interests or attitude toward things.
And while it seemed like the middle of nowhere, the Janesville/Milton area somehow found itself coming into the national spotlight again and again. For instance, Milton College, which enrolled at most 200 students, would be the unlikely launching point for the career of Dave Krieg, a prolific NFL QB for the Seattle Seahawks. Shortly after Krieg left, the college closed. For years I took piano lessons from one of Milton College's former music professors.
Then there was the Orwellian named Student Assistant Program, one of the first programs to require students suspected of drug use to submit to a drug test. The national media expected student protest and sent press helicopters to land in the football field but the Milton High School student body was pretty much ho-hum. My face appeared briefly on a national nightly news program when I looked up from a test I was taking to discover a camera in my face.
In 1992, after I'd left, Janesville became the location of an attempt to found a new chapter of the KKK. Geraldo Rivera famously engaged in a fist fight with a Klansman there. The Klan eventually pulled out when faced with massive protests, made up mostly of students from nearby Madison, Wisconsin.
And Janesville has been in the news again recently. It's the home of Paul Ryan, Congressman and former Vice Presidential candidate. You may remember that last year he delivered a speech outside the closed GM plant in Janesville, blaming President Barack Obama for its closing, but failing to recall that the plant closed before Obama even took office.
I can't say that I miss Janesville, exactly. But being taken back there , unexpectedly, by Dark Dude, hasn't been an entirely bad experience. Mostly, it's reminded me of how badly I wanted to escape and put more deeply in touch with Rico who desperately wants, and needs, to escape his life in Harlem. That, it turns out, is probably one of the universal states of adolescence.