First of all, extremely excellent jacket design. I’d read something about this book and thought it had sounded worth reading (glowing praise, if I only I could remember from who!). But the cover drew me in across the library floor to the shelf where it was displayed along with the other newbie hardcovers.
Also, excellent name. Green is the nickname cut from Greenfeld—Dave Greenfeld, sixth-grade narrator, diehard basketball fan, secular Jew born to hippie-activist parents, odd blond kid in a mostly non-white public school in Boston. It’s also cash money. It’s also inexperience. It’s also the Celtics.
He befriends Marlon, or Mar, a fellow underdog who lives in the housing projects in the same neighborhood as Dave. Green is known as white boy to almost everyone in school, but Marlon and he connect. A black friend is a serious social coup for Green, but Mar is also the first time his friendship is a true bond instead of a lackey/sidekick situation.
What follows is a delicate story, told in sixth-grade-white-boy-trying-to-fit-in, nineties-hip-hop vernacular, of two outcasts finding shelter and support with one another but also encountering a thousand limitations they never asked for.
The book is pretty open, from its jacket copy to its back-cover blurbs, about its themes of inequality, race, and social justice. I suppose this is true and fair, but like any good art, it’s not about the Message so much as it is about getting the audience to feel a truth. And the gift, the art, of this book, the truth that it mines, is what Green calls “the force,” his term for the strange nuclear-bomb-radiation of racism.
Because he’s not referring to the racism of the white people who condescend to or avoid Mar, though that happens. He’s referring to the hallway-of-mirrors of hate, guilt, and fear that he and Mar inherit. It’s him cheering on the rioters after Rodney King, but then hating them for attacking Reginald Denny, and then hearing “Fuck you lookin’ at, white boy?” from kids his age, “glaring … through the stiff mask of the force,” and then Green hating himself for avoiding walking by “the PJs” after that.
The force is like a corollary to Du Bois’ idea of the Veil, and it does function like a veil between Green and Mar. It keeps Green from fulling knowing Mar, in part because he can’t relate and in part because he’s too afraid to cross fully into Mar’s world. And Green senses that neither Mar nor anybody else really wants him to cross the line, either. Mar gets full access to Green’s world, though, sleeping over at their house and hanging out with the Greenfeld family. (Green keeps his family’s Jewish identity secret from Mar and wrestles with some of his own questions about history and marginalization.) This parallels the way culture at large functions—other groups are immersed in dominant (white Christian) culture but the reverse is not true.
The way the force swirls in and out of their friendship, popping up like a wall or a weapon, is the wonder of this sweet, sad, funny page-turner.
What would Mar’s book be? Mar has a different story to tell, and it’s clear from the beginning of Green that he’s already well versed in the presence of the force. So for the white reader, this book echoes Dave’s pattern of getting a glimpse, but just a glimpse, outside their own bubble. But so long as the radioactive fallout of the force is with us, it needs attention and reckoning.