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Lenore

I'm a hopeful cynic.

Chulito - Charles Rice-González, Charles Rice-González Well, I won't say I found this story beautiful, but I will definitely say there's beauty in it. Sixteen-year-old Chulito, for starters. He's a cutie. On the first page of the book he's described as a Latino, hip hop version of Michelangelo's David. Then the neighbourhood. Hunts Point, in the Bronx. The botegas. The Chinese/Korean restaurants. The auto glass guys. The corner where Chulito hangs out with the fellas. It was very well done and for me it was the best part in the story. I read in some other review that the hood and the fellas brought the TV show "The Wire" in mind, and it's true. I, too, thought of that show more than once, especially the first season, while reading Chulito. The teenage boys with the necessary and at times funny nicknames, high school dropouts, aspiring to make a "career" in drug trafficking, hooking up with local girls but avoiding getting serious with them, adept at fathering children but inept at taking care of them.Then the secondary characters. Without them this story would have been nothing special. They were described so vividly, so aptly, they felt authentic, like real people. The most notable ones for me were Kamikaze and Brick. The current and the ex-criminal. Two characters with both good and evil in them, with as many vices as virtues, as many merits as flaws, with layers and layers of qualities, positive and negative, that made you want to both laugh and cry, slap them across the face and hug them tight, be friends with them and hate them at the same time.Other characters I liked where Julio, the old gay travel agent, Puti, the neighbourhood transvestite, the mothers, Carmen and Maria.I also enjoyed Chulito's dreams, one earlier and one later in the story, expressing the teenager's wishes and fears, the question of his sexuality, the dread of the realisation that he was different. I especially enjoyed the dream about macho having been outlawed, the macho-meter device the authorities used to screen men and Chulito's fear that he wouldn’t pass it.Then the fight scene. Chulito standing up for his choice. Puti, for once abandoning her position at her window, limping outside and using a high-heeled shoe as a weapon. Julio brandishing his gun and exclaiming "enough" to everyone and no one in particular. But. Yes, there's a but. More than one buts, really.The dynamic between the major characters, Chulito and Carlos. Their emotions for each other, how and why they started, how and why they bloomed, didn't come across as powerfully as I expected. Chulito, unable to overcome his dread of being labelled as gay, kept blowing Carlos off, treating him worse and worse. However, despite his shitty behaviour, despite being the younger and less smart one, despite his fears, he came across as the stronger of the two, the one calling the shots. Carlos, although openly gay in a neighbourhood full of prejudices, discrimination and bigotry, although much more mature than his actual age, although probably smarter than any other seventeen-year-old in Hunts Point, and despite his determination not to let Chulito drag him back in the closet, came across as weak, insubstantial, plain, insipid. He lost the game the moment I started wondering what Chulito found in him (and it was pretty early in the story).Now, the relationship between Chulito and Kamikaze? A whole different ball of wax. What Carlos and his interaction with Chulito lacked, Kamikaze and his own interaction with Chulito had in spades. Chulito and Kamikaze had hammered out a relationship of such intensity, intimacy, trust and love, whatever Chulito had built (or was building) with Carlos paled in comparison. Even their single common sexual experience felt hot times infinity compared to Chulito's encounters with Carlos. It was Kamikaze's wiry pube Chulito made sure stayed under his tongue for safekeeping, not Carlos'.Then there were also the issues I had with the narrative. I'm not sure if it was omniscient or third (and single) person POV. Or both. Or neither. Eighty per cent of the time it felt like single person. It was through Chulito's eyes the story was told. Then, for no apparent reason, a couple of scenes with Carlos' POV appeared. And the strange thing was that they didn't offer anything extremely different, or new, or substantial.In addition, the almost complete lack of past perfect tense confused me more times than I could count, having me wondering if what I was reading was happening in the present or the past and, eventually, taking me out of the story.Lastly, finishing the book I had the strong impression that the author all but abandoned his story in the last twenty per cent or so. That was where the story deflated instead of taking off. I expected much more to happen in the neighbourhood after the fight scene. And I expected the relationship between Chulito and Carlos to feel fortified not compromised, with one of them, Carlos, leaving, going back to college, to a life familiar and an environment he knew how to handle, and the other, Chulito, staying back, alone, altered, redefined, to a life he didn't have the time to adapt to, having to learn how to work a legit job, to be someone else, and probably fight a war of survival no one, not even Kamikaze, seemed to know how would evolve. Even though the story ended on a hopeful tone, I felt like Chulito hadn't realized what was coming, and like what was coming wasn't a walk in the park.So, this book didn't speak to me on the profound level it did to other people. And it wasn't because of the Latino/Ghetto theme. If anything, that was a plus. Mostly, it was the imbalance of the flat, shallow characterization where it mattered most and the three-dimensional, full-blown characters where it didn't. This story could have survived without such a realistic Brick, perhaps even without such an amazing Kamikaze. But, unfortunately, it didn't survive without a mind-blowing Carlos.But at least it had Brick and it had Kamikaze and, most of all, it had Chulito, the sun around which everyone else in the book revolved. This was Chulito's story and as such I can say it was worth the time I spent reading it and writing this review.