Rating: 4.5 out of 5
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel about a gay, macho Puerto Rican kid in South Bronx. Other reviews give good summaries, so if you want to know what the story is about in review-like language, it might be better to read those.
I sympathized more with Chulito than with Carlos (who is Chulito's love interest and is "out" and more obviously gay). I found myself annoyed at Carlos for being impatient with Chulito to become a "different" person:
"Chulito, you won't even hold my hand at the pier for more than two seconds or kiss me in public because someone might see you."This felt like manipulation to me on Carlos' part. I think some gay guys make an assumption that macho gay guys have it easier because they can "pass" in a homophobic world. But like any other gay guy, they cease to pass when they hold hands or kiss their boyfriends in public. The assumption is that if macho gay guys are not willing to give up their heterosexist privilege and be "out and proud," then they're being unethical or unsupportive in some way.
"We different. You don't give a shit, but I do."
Carlos stepped toward him, staring into his eyes. "Do you give a shit about me?"
"I do. I love you, Carlos."
Yet the world that Chulito is passing in is one where his future is unstable (he's a drug runner), whereas Carlos is in college and has an internship to become a journalist. There's a kind of dynamic where Chulito connects Carlos' being out and proud with "legit" economic success, or at least sees no detriment to it other than Carlos having to take his "gayness" outside the neighborhood. In a later scene, Carlos makes it clear that he doesn't want to go back into hiding (in the closet) in order to be with Chulito, so it's just Carlos' personal expectation that if they're going to be together, they need to be "out." Also, Chulito threw a bottle at Carlos' ex in the past, so being out would prove to Carlos that Chulito has changed.
Chulito understands this, and actually admires Carlos for being "gangsta" enough to not care what others think; he also admires Carlos for making something of his future. But Chulito isn't necessarily going to go to college and leave the neighborhood, so he has a tough choice to make: be out with Carlos and potentially lose his neighborhood (Where would he go? Would the gay community accept a thug like Chulito?) -- or lose Carlos, but keep his neighborhood.
I felt like Carlos' expectation for Chulito to be out was a kind of violence inflicted. I appreciated how Rice-González explored this through a dream sequence where the government and police were arresting macho guys for being "too macho." The only way out of being arrested for Chulito was to confess his love for Carlos, publicly:
"CARLOS, I LOVE YOU AND WANT TO BE WITH YOU, ON THE PIER AND EVERYWHERE, PA!"The humanity of Chulito crying out nearly brought tears to my eyes. Ultimately, Chulito is public with Carlos, which leads to a street fight with a homophobic bully in order to carve space for themselves in the neighborhood. Hence, Chulito doesn't lose his 'hood after all. And while Rice-González is speaking out against homophobia, I read an almost bigger critique concerning a need for more acceptance and understanding within the gay community.
Okay...so I want to rant about "down low" culture for a bit.
If you go onto craigslist, you can find plenty of macho guys who identify as straight, have girlfriends or wives, but are seeking sex/intimacy with men when their gf's/wives are out of town. There's a kind of aesthetic that's presented: the secret makes it "hot," the masculinity makes it "real," and the connection is "better" because it's "gay without being gay." Luckily, Chulito meets a female prostitute (with whom he loses his virginity) who informs him: "It takes more to be a man than just fucking a woman." (Somehow Chulito has a lot of great mentors throughout the book!) There's homophobia in those craigslist ads, obviously, but it's almost as if the homophobia is something the gay community acquiesces to because of an attraction to machoism. To be clear, I think these guys' behavior is dishonest and wrong because of the unknowing woman involved, not necessarily because they're "closeted" or choose to keep their queerness private and/or anonymous. If Carlos weren't in Chulito's life (as well as adult mentors), I do see Chulito settling down with a girl, which would doubtless be a travesty for him and for her (unless they have an open relationship, etc).
However, a down low relationship between two men can be monogamous and without a woman in the picture. There are many guys on craigslist who are seeking sex/intimacy with men (may or may not identify as straight), and are single and want to be "discreet." The love Chulito feels for Carlos is intense, and if he has to be "out" and "gay" to keep Carlos (as per Carlos' insistence), Chulito is ultimately willing to do that.
I guess this is why I was annoyed at Carlos. There is plenty of indication that Carlos would give up Chulito if Chulito wasn't willing to be out after a couple months of dating. After a whole childhood of falling in love with each other? I guess gay youth might have greater expectations of each other these days, but if Chulito didn't have his mentors, I'm not sure he could've pulled it off. I'll be pissed at Carlos if he drops Chulito a couple years down the line, still expecting him to be "different" somehow.
There's a scene where one of Carlos' friends, Kenny, who's flamboyant, comments on how "weird" it is and how jealous he is of Carlos, seeing Chulito snuggling his head in Carlos' chest like a puppy. The weirdness is a surrealism of seeing a macho guy like Chulito cuddle with another guy in public. The jealousy speaks to the aesthetic I mentioned above about how being with a macho guy is seen as somehow more real or special (Although thought of as usually private? What does this say about the public fight over gay marriage?). An "out" Chulito shouldn't be weird at all, though.
On the other hand, I can understand why Kenny would be jealous. Rice-González certainly made Chulito a chulito. More than once I grinned giddily at how Chulito delivered some of his lines.
I invite other readers to comment below...