Twelve-year-old David "Green" Greenfeld is one of only two white kids in his South Boston school. Narrator of Sam Graham-Felsen's first novel, Green, he speaks a hip-hop patois with self-conscious concern that he not sound as uncool as his skin color suggests he is: "Awesome is a Caucasian catastrophe.... High fives are some hiked-up shorts Hoosiers s**t, the physical equivalent of awesome." His parents are Harvard-grad former hippies who won't send him to a private school because they "believe" in public schools. As Green describes his father, "Normal dads teach you how to hit--or shoot, or dribble. Mine taught me how to hike, load a bird feeder, and sprinkle seeds in cow crap." Fitting in and finding friends at Martin Luther King Middle School is a lesson in "the phattest gear... a Chicago Bulls tracksuit, matching red Jordans, and a thick gold chain with a roaring-lion piece." Green is a coming-of-age story set in the '90s where Geto Boys echo in the streets and the Celtics rule. What Paul Beatty did in White Boy Shuffle for a black kid growing up in Santa Monica, Graham-Felsen does for Green trying to fit in among his black peers. Even the other white kid in his class is half-Armenian and often mistaken for Puerto Rican.
In time, Green makes friends with Marlon, a shy kid from the projects who is a curious reader and has a premier collection of video highlights from Celtics games. With a rarely discussed family life at home, Marlon prefers to hang at Green's place, where his parents dote and encourage both boys to study hard for the admission test for Boston Latin School, the prestigious public school from which acceptance into Harvard is almost assured. But this is a novel about adolescent boys growing into manhood. Hitting the books is way down their priority list, below standing up to violent bullies and figuring out how sex works. As Green laments, "You turn my age and you can never be soft again."
Journalist, Columbia MFA graduate and former chief blogger for the 2008 Obama campaign, Graham-Felsen is after more than a Tom Sawyer take on adolescence. Green tackles the nuances of how class and race throw up inflexible barriers preventing a healthy integration of a diverse population. It is one thing to "believe" in an egalitarian society, but quite another to achieve it when the obstacles appear at an early age. In the microcosm of that world that is King Middle School, the options for white "hood" wannabe Green are much better than those for black Marlon ("Latin, upstate, or underground"). Funny and on the money, Green is a perceptive reflection of how far we still have to go.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.— Bruce Jacobs
A coming-of-age novel about race, privilege, and the struggle to rise in America, written by a former Obama campaign staffer and propelled by an exuberant, unforgettable narrator.
"A riot of language that's part hip-hop, part nerd boy, and part pure imagination."--The Boston Globe Boston, 1992. David Greenfeld is one of the few white kids at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Middle School. Everybody clowns him, girls ignore him, and his hippie parents won't even buy him a pair of Nikes, let alone transfer him to a private school. Unless he tests into the city's best public high school--which, if practice tests are any indication, isn't likely--he'll be friendless for the foreseeable future. Nobody's more surprised than Dave when Marlon Wellings sticks up for him in the school cafeteria. Mar's a loner from the public housing project on the corner of Dave's own gentrifying block, and he confounds Dave's assumptions about black culture: He's nerdy and neurotic, a Celtics obsessive whose favorite player is the gawky, white Larry Bird. Before long, Mar's coming over to Dave's house every afternoon to watch vintage basketball tapes and plot their hustle to Harvard. But as Dave welcomes his new best friend into his world, he realizes how little he knows about Mar's. Cracks gradually form in their relationship, and Dave starts to become aware of the breaks he's been given--and that Mar has not. Infectiously funny about the highs and lows of adolescence, and sharply honest in the face of injustice, Sam Graham-Felsen's debut is a wildly original take on the American dream. Praise for Green "Prickly and compelling . . . Graham-Felsen lets boys be boys: messy-brained, impulsive, goatish, self-centered, outwardly gutsy but often inwardly terrified."--The New York Times Book Review (Editors' Choice) "A coming-of-age tale of uncommon sweetness and feeling."--The New Yorker
"A fierce and brilliant book, comic, poignant, perfectly observed, and blazing with all the urgent fears and longings of adolescence."--Helen Macdonald, author of H Is for Hawk "A heartfelt and unassumingly ambitious book."--Slate
About the Author
Sam Graham-Felsen was born and raised in Boston. He has worked as chief blogger for Barack Obama's 2008 campaign, a journalist for The Nation, and a peanut vendor at Fenway Park. This is his first novel.