Book Review | Dark Dude by Oscar Hijuelos

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Life is always a little bit better when you win free things. That’s why I was on cloud nine when notified I won Vamos a Leer’s giveaway! Vamos a Leer is a project under the University of New Mexico that provides resources and book recommendations related to Latin America. That’s the simplified version, but trust me, they’re worth a look. As the winner, I received a copy of Dark Dude by Oscar Hijuelos, which I consumed like a vacuum. Thanks again to everyone at Vamos a Leer!

Dark Dude cover

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Short Review: Dark Dude is something new– something I wish had been one of many similar books when I was a child. Within its pages, Pulitzer Prize winner Hijuelos introduces a Cuban-American coming of age story that feels honest and relatable.

I’m no expert on young adult books. In fact, I gave my 15-year-old brother Invisible Man and The Fire Next Time for Christmas last year. They’re books that every young black man should have, but my choice actually reveals that I didn’t know of any young adult books with young men of color to give him.

Enter Dark Dude. Rico Fuentes is the type of guy I’d have been friends with in high school– when he’s not playing his acoustic guitar, he’s working on concepts for the comic book he plans on sending to DC Comics executives. He’s a pretty endearing kid, in spite of being shunned for his skin.

Rico is not what he, or those around him, considers a regular Cubano: he’s not much of a dancer, his Spanish isn’t accented, and his hair and skin are very light. He doesn’t fit in among the Black and Latino students, both of which assume he’s white and are suspicious or outright hostile. Through interactions with Rico, Oscar Hijuelos is able to bring forth various discussions about race from a different perspective. Oftentimes, race is treated as a bipolar concept—in this book, mostly set in New York, race is realistically multi-polar. It incorporates dynamics between Latinos, as well as White and Black people of different socioeconomic statuses.

After a lifetime of being too poor and Latino for whites, but too light for Latinos and blacks, Rico is fed up. Convincing a troubled neighbor to accompany him, Rico runs away to Wisconsin, where an old friend lives a much simpler life. Rico’s excited to escape to a one of the homogeneously white areas in the U.S., where he’s certain his light features will blend in. It doesn’t. When he applies for a job at the gas station, the owner remarks that it’s odd his name is Rico, because he doesn’t “look like a wetback.” Over the course of the next year, Rico lives among the corn and the corn farmers, while he and Jimmy contemplate what’s left for them in New York City.

It takes a lot of faith for me to read a book that is compared to The Catcher in the Rye on its rear, but I’m happy I did. Aside from the pensive teenage male protagonist, it’s not reminiscent of Catcher at all. This book is insightful and relatable, more because of the characters than the story line itself. Rico’s voice is well developed, and he’s essentially like any other young man who feels different. There’s no classist, faux-perceptive musings about “fakes and phonies,” just conversations from a boy unsure about his future, and even more unsure about his identity.

I gave this book 4 out of 5 stars because while it isn’t perfect, it’s absolutely a book I wish existed when I was younger. Growing up Bahamian-American, I never felt as though I was Caribbean enough, which oftentimes made me feel a bit left out amongst my family. For that reason, Rico’s is a narrative I identify with strongly.

For those thinking about buying this for their young adult of choice, the publisher recommends this book for ages 11/12 and up, and I agree. Even though there’s minimal romance, there’s still ample drug use and periodical violence.

What were some of your favorites growing up? I’m also on a hunt for more great YA books with protagonists of color! If you know of any, let me know in the comments! Also, don’t forget to check out Vamos a Leer, where their most recent post spotlights Dark Dude’s author! 

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19 Comments

  1. […] Dark Dude, by Oscar Hijuelos […]

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  2. Vamos a Leer sounds like an amazing project! Glad you reviewed this books since I hardly know of any poc YA books either,maybe Junot’s Oscar? There’s Shadowshaper. And I have When I was the Greatest on my tbr.

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  3. I love that you gave those books to your brother for Christmas. When I am invited to a high school graduation party, I give the person a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It’s a book that I teach to all of my freshman in college. I just finished a YA novel for my new book club called Only Ever Yours. The main character is “brown,” but she only mentions that maybe 4 times over the course of a novel that’s 400 pages. All of the women in the book are designed the same way (it’s dystopian YA), so I wondered what the significance was, and if her brown skin “meant” anything.

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    1. Funny that you mention Malcolm– it’s his birthday! Thats a great choice

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I read that book every semester. I’ve read it at least a dozen times. I still cry when I get to the end.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Great review, thanks for sharing Vamos A Leer. I’ve been meaning to read more Latin American literature, especially contemporary, as I tended to ran away from it for what I’d read in school (I’m from Venezuela).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thats how I felt about Caribbean literature growing up. I raaaaaan from it, but as an adult, I love some Edwidge Danticat and Aime Cesaire!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This novel sounds wonderful. I will introduce it to my twins when they’re old enough. They’re only 8. What interests me the most about this book is that it’s about a young man who doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of his “group.” That would apply to my redheaded South Asians! They’re only a quarter, but the culture is all around them, and how they will ultimately fit in remains to be seen.

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    1. You’re right to wait a couple years, because otherwise… it would take a bit of explaining. That dynamic is definitely one that appealed to me as well, since I don’t quite fit in with my family either!

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  6. I should enter more of Vamos A Leer’s giveaways! They do them rather frequently and I might just get lucky one day.

    I like Rico. It’s nice to see a Cuban character who loves acoustic guitar and comic books.

    Does the book explain Rico’s ethnic make up? Is he a white Cubano? I ask this because there is such a thing as white Latinos, especially in South America (Brazil, Argentina) and even in Mexico. How does Rico identify? Probably just as a Cuban, I assume. And he’s probably tired of people trying to define him.

    Thanks for letting me know about this book. I didn’t even know it existed. 🙂 I love your blog.

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    1. That’s an interesting question– I’m surprised no one else has asked it, especially because being “white Cuban” is definitely a dynamic I’ve seen play out. You’d find parts of this book interesting for sure. His family is actually mostly of darker skin tone– he’s not the product of an affair, he just looks like his Irish grandfather. His mother is extremely jealous of his lightness, and if he didn’t otherwise look like his father, I think he’d have a bit of an identity crisis himself. But he identifies as broadly “Cuban,” and resents people asking.

      And thanks! You know I ❤ yours. GREAT job on that hashtag. You're today's MVP.

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      1. I see,so he has an Irish grandfather. Genetics are weird, so I can believe that.

        So the mother is jealous of his lighter skin? That must be an interesting family dynamic. Ugh. I wish colorism didn’t exist.

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      2. Me too. It’s something that’s pretty prominent in the Bahamas, too. It’s really permeated so many cultures around the world.

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  7. This sounds like a good addition to the huge YA industry out there! Thanks for the review – I’ll be checking this one out!

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    1. Definitely! Y’all know I don’t read much YA, but I enjoyed this one

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Vamos a Leer looks like such a great resource–thanks for pointing it out! I don’t read much YA either, but this looks really good.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s great! Especially because my knowledge of Latin American literature isn’t too wide.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Oh the joy of a free book!

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    1. Right! It makes my day a little bit brighter! (and my bank account a little happier)

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