Danny Lopez is one confused dude: ”He’s Mexican, because his family’s Mexican, but he’s not really Mexican. His skin is dark like his grandma’s sweet coffee, but his insides are as pale as the cream she mixes in.”
Danny is 16, a big, gangly kid over 6 feet tall who appears in the mirror as if ”his shirt is propped up by an upside-down coat hanger.” Most of the time, Danny wishes ”he could morph into one of the ants zigzagging in and out of tiny crevices in the street.”Except when he’s on the pitcher’s mound, where Danny has lights-out stuff.
Danny is the remarkably human creation of young California-bred ”Ball Don’t Lie” writer Matt de la Pena, ”a half-white boy” himself whose recent novel ”Mexican White Boy” is the uplifting -- but never corny, sentimental or sappy -- story of a young man trying to figure out who he is.
It’s also the theme of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Oscar ”Mambo Kings” Hijuelos’ autobiographical toe-dip into the young adult literature pool.
”Dark Dude” is the story of 15-year-old Harlem-born Rico, ”the palest Cubano who ever existed on the planet.” He embarks on a Huck Finnish journey to whitebread central Wisconsin. Indeed, Twain’s American picaresque classic is a key touchstone for Rico.
Aside from the weighty fact that their main characters share a kind of cultural and racial ”head trip,” as Rico, a child of the ’60s, might put it, these two recent young adult novels enjoy perhaps an even more crucial connection: An important element in Danny’s and Rico’s tangled psyches is their relationships with their fathers. Rico’s is there, but not there, a waiter working two jobs who is beaten down by ”the man.”
A taciturn type with a volatile temper, Danny’s dad has unexpectedly checked out of his life and is living in his native Mexico in mysterious exile. Or so Danny’s been told.
Fathers occupy the role of savior in both these novels, but the overriding question these boys must come to terms with is: Am I worshipping a false idol?
De la Pena’s book is solid, a home run, if that’s not too obvious to say about a book set against a backdrop of baseball.
It’s emotionally rich, a vivid portrait of a So-Cal barrio and its inhabitants. De la Pena, a former jock in his 30s, doesn’t talk down and has street cred. The book opens: ”Dressed in a well-worn Billabong tee, camo cargo shorts and a pair of old-school slip-on Vans, Danny Lopez follows his favorite cousin, Sofia, as she rolls up on the cul-de-sac crowd with an OG swagger.”
Hijuelos’ ”Dark Dude” is more problematic. He is in his late 50s and has a more difficult time portraying a believable teenager -- ”getting into his head” is the outmoded phrase he might use.
False notes ring out: His characters ”copped a squat” on their barrio stoops, checking out the ”flyest” girls on the block. But Hijuelos’ novel takes on an enhanced emotional resonance when Rico runs away from the barrio to Wisconsin to live in a hippie-type commune. Here, Rico and Hijuelos find solid ground in the head-high drifts of snow.
©2008/THE NEW YORK TIMES