By Sam Graham-Felsen
301 pp. Random Home. $27.
“Inexperienced,” the debut novel from Sam Graham-Felsen, who was chief blogger for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential marketing campaign, chronicles the center college travails of an anomalous number of minority pupil. “I’m the white boy on the Martin Luther King Center,” is how 12-year-old David Alexander Greenfeld, nicknamed Inexperienced, introduces himself within the novel’s opening line. Martin Luther King Center is a Boston public college — “mad ghetto,” in Inexperienced’s estimation — the place his progressive dad and mom have despatched him for sixth grade. He’s not the one white boy within the college, however the different one — his good friend Kev, who’s obtained lip scruff and spiky black hair together with prowess on the basketball court docket — usually passes for Puerto Rican. There’s no mistaking Inexperienced, although: not together with his blue eyes and blond curls and continuously flushed cheeks, not together with his monogrammed L. L. Bean backpack, not together with his weak spot for blurting the phrase “superior” (“a Caucasian disaster,” he notes). Virtually all 12-year-olds are confused about who and what they’re, however for David Greenfeld, in school, one conspicuous aspect of his id defines him: not his Inexperienced-ness, however his whiteness.
Hewing to the traditional coming-of-age-novel formulation, “Inexperienced’s” Inexperienced experiences quite a lot of awakenings — sexual, spiritual, familial, ethical and never surprisingly racial — through the course of his sixth-grade college yr (1992-93), all of which get relayed in first-person, present-tense, slanged-up narration. The alarm clock for a few of these awakenings is the friendship Inexperienced strikes with Marlon Wellings, a pious, studious black classmate who lives close to Inexperienced within the Robert Gould Shaw Properties, a.ok.a. “the initiatives.” Marlon, in contrast to Inexperienced, is generally resistant to social tensions, sitting by himself at lunchtime finding out for the doorway examination to Boston Latin, town’s elite public college, the place Inexperienced additionally goals to switch. Inexperienced’s first impression is that Marlon “seems fairly delicate,” and thus approachable: “creased khakis, pilled-up flannel, boxy black sneakers and a brief, unkempt flattop, extra like a clumpy cloud.” He has a niche in his entrance tooth, simply as Inexperienced does, however the similarities don’t finish there. The bond they type relies partly upon a clandestine love for the Boston Celtics — “nobody overtly admits they really feel the Celtics anymore,” Inexperienced says — and partly upon their shared need for an upward transfer to Boston Latin. At Martin Luther King Center they’re outsiders, and each of them are determined to get even farther exterior.
The similarities do, nonetheless, bear some apparent endpoints. Inexperienced’s Birkenstock-shod dad and mom went to Harvard earlier than embarking on a lifetime of bobo activism (“Pops provides mad loot to Greenpeace”); Marlon’s father is someplace down South whereas his grandmother cares for him alongside together with his mentally ailing mom. Inexperienced and his Eight-year-old brother, Benno, spend summers serving to their dad and mom have a tendency a neighborhood backyard plot; Marlon eats asparagus for the primary time at Inexperienced’s home and the resultant urine odor triggers a most cancers panic. Inexperienced is a secular Jew, confounded by what that even means, whereas Marlon sings within the choir in a storefront church close to the Roxbury border. Inexperienced’s dad and mom, if they might loosen up their rules, may conceivably ship him to a safer personal college (brother Benno, who not too long ago stopped talking, attends one such college “for delicate youngsters”); Marlon’s grandmother is absent that possibility. And Marlon is black, whereas Inexperienced, manifestly, is white.
This dynamic — the white boy adrift within the city and predominantly black college, the fraught cross-racial friendship that blooms there — isn’t new to fiction. Jonathan Lethem probed it, with beautiful grace, in his 2003 novel “The Fortress of Solitude.” (A line from Lethem’s novel, in actual fact, may function a 10-word abstract of Inexperienced: “A white boy in sixth grade, squirming within the glare.”) Graham-Felsen isn’t reaching for a similar lofty heights as Lethem did (few novelists dare to), however he’s reaching in the identical common path: towards the terribly thorny magnificence on the coronary heart of cross-racial friendships, which constitutes, per Leslie Fiedler and others, certainly one of our important American tales. These thorns maintain getting denser and sharper as “Inexperienced” progresses, as when Inexperienced discovers that the pair’s snow shoveling enterprise is profitable solely when he approaches potential prospects with out Marlon in sight. What we name racism Inexperienced apprehends as “the pressure”: its energies all over the place, “engaged on everybody,” himself included. When Inexperienced copies a few solutions from Marlon through the fated entrance examination, the white proctor takes discover however lets it slide. “A sickening mixture of reduction and disgrace sweeps over me,” says Inexperienced. “Mar is aware of it and I do, too: I’ve been saved by the pressure.”
Moments like these — rendered subtly, with out poster-size messaging — are when “Inexperienced” is at its most prickly and compelling. Scenes of innocence — Inexperienced and Marlon clowning in do-it-yourself pro-wrestler costumes, or watching VHS tapes of Larry Chook-era Celtics video games from inside a front room fort made from blankets and chairs — function their delicately calibrated counterbalances, affecting of their sweetness however credible of their lack of saccharine. Graham-Felsen lets boys be boys: messy-brained, impulsive, goatish, self-centered, outwardly gutsy however usually inwardly terrified. The voice with which Graham-Felsen equips Inexperienced, overseasoned with hip-hop slang, is the epitome of this. At first blush it suggests Holden Caulfield as translated by Vanilla Ice (“If I’m gonna make one other try to kick it to her, I’m gonna want a brand new Machine, and for that I’m gonna have to fatten my muenster stack, quick”). But because the novel advances, and this road stud pose begins splintering, the voice itself gathers a form of dorky poignancy, the reader sensing an unseen wobble upon Inexperienced’s stiff, pale lip. Is it linguistic blackface, with all that means, or a 12-year-old’s guileless try to cobble collectively a voice of his personal from what’s nearest at hand? “I want I had what he has,” Inexperienced says of Marlon at one level. He’s speaking about faith, nevertheless it might be id or possibly id’s midwife, neighborhood. “All I got here up with was confusion.”
But this reader discovered himself wishing for one thing of Marlon’s, too: his awakenings, his perspective, his internal voice, his fullness on the web page. As Lethem wrote in “The Fortress of Solitude”: “The white child has one set of emotions, the black child one other.” That we aren’t aware of these emotions owes much less to malpractice than to the inherent limitations of Graham-Felsen telling this story by way of Inexperienced’s blue eyes. Marlon solely exists inside Inexperienced’s purview, which implies that “Inexperienced” — and by extension the reader — sees solely a fraction of the entire. “We match up in 1,000,000 delicate little methods — why can’t we simply be boys once more?” Inexperienced laments close to the tip, when the friendship has run aground. “However the extra I give it some thought, the extra I ponder if we have been meant to be shards from the beginning. Not simply me and Mar — everybody. Go searching. … The pressure is all over the place, prying us aside.” There’s extra hopefulness than this by the ultimate pages, nevertheless it’s a long-shot hope, a coin right into a fountain. He and Marlon match up in 1,000,000 methods save one, however that one, in America then as now, appears cursed to outweigh all of the others.