The 21st century has heard more than its share from Boston’s white people. While they’ve certainly been a disproportionately voluble bunch ever since Johnny Winthrop first led them ashore almost 400 years ago, in recent years Boston’s whites have reaped an embarrassment of representational riches: the Affleck brothers, Bill Simmons, multiple feature-length documentaries about the 2004 Red Sox, five Patriot Super Bowl victories (and counting, baby!!), Wahlburgers. Sam Graham-Felsen’s debut novel Green is one of the more charming recent additions to this pile, a heartfelt and unassumingly ambitious book that blends fiction, memoir, and social analysis to lovingly recreate the Hub of Graham-Felsen’s youth, while also directing a well-intentioned if somewhat shaky microscope onto the city’s notoriously shameful racial landscape.
Green is a coming-of-age tale set in 1992, told through the eyes and voice of its 11-year-old protagonist, David Greenfeld. David lives in Boston’s historic Jamaica Plain neighborhood along with his parents and his taciturn and troubled younger brother, Benno. He is obsessed with the Boston Celtics, masturbation, and hip-hop, in perpetually shifting order, and is one of the only white students at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, where he tries his best to fly under the radar of his peers, who pick on him for his clothes, his newly pubescent awkwardness, and—sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly—his skin color. In sixth grade, David befriends a black classmate named Marlon Wellings, whose own bookish tendencies, unabashed love for the deeply uncool hometown Celtics, and precarious home life have made him a pariah, too.
Prior to turning to fiction, Graham-Felsen worked as a journalist and as chief blogger for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign; he grew up in Boston, and judging from the book’s promotional materials, Green is highly autobiographical. (I, too, grew up in the Boston area and am nearly the exact same age as David Greenfeld—I, too, loved hip-hop and the NBA, and recognize nearly all of the area landmarks name-checked in Green.) Green works best when it sticks to the most intimate aspects of its protagonist’s life: namely, his family. Graham-Felsen brings a deft and careful touch to his portrayal of David’s home life, including his loving and exasperated relationship with Benno. The book’s richest and most affecting relationship, though, is the one between David and his parents. Lou and Liz are note-perfect renderings of a certain Bostonian parental type: educated, liberal idealists stubbornly committed to defiant, middle-class progressivism, people who’d prefer to grow their own food and send their kid to an underserved public school than embrace the rapidly encroaching gourmet groceries and private schools of some of their demographic peers. Liz and Lou occasionally teeter on the brink of parodic stereotype but never cross the line, a credit to Graham-Felsen’s powers of observation that only makes them feel more real: After all, what parents don’t spend their child’s middle-school years constantly verging on a parody of themselves?
As a coming-of-age novel about a specific family of a specific milieu, Green is a resounding success; as a novel about race, which appears to be its grander ambition, it often stumbles. Green is a book about a young white boy’s emerging race consciousness, as David spends much of the book simultaneously guilt-wracked over the benefits he accrues from his whiteness and resentful of the fact that his skin color makes him a target for bullying and ostracism among his classmates. Early on, David introduces us to the concept of “the force,” which, for himself, he pinpoints as infiltrating his consciousness on April 29, 1992, the beginning of the riots in Los Angeles in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict. “The force” is either racism, race consciousness, or perhaps the overwhelming construct of race itself—it’s never fully or coherently explained, which is perhaps understandable given our narrator’s age, but frustrating for the reader. “This isn’t some Jedi bullshit; the force I’m talking about is real, and its energies are everywhere, working on everyone,” David explains, which frankly does sound a little like some Jedi bullshit.
Graham-Felsen has chosen to render his story in first-person narration saturated with early-1990s hip-hop slang, which results in moments like an 11-year-old white boy lusting over “a big-bootied eighth-grader named Aisha” and declaring things like “If I’m gonna make another attempt to kick it to her… I’m gonna need to fatten my muenster stack, fast.” The cringes that these passages induce are surely by Graham-Felsen’s design, a choice that’s equal parts courageous and clunky. Further complicating matters is that much of David’s narration never really loses the whiff of a person in his mid-30s writing “like” a kid. The book’s period detail is painstaking, but with an oddly showy, encyclopedic compulsion: Lengthy, stat-heavy discursions on the particulars of the early-1990s NBA read like explainers for Graham-Felsen’s less hoops-inclined readership (who, if they’re not fluent in pro basketball, are surely fluent in Wikipedia). Why would an 11-year-old in Boston in the early 1990s need to list off how many career All-Star appearances, MVP trophies, and NBA championships Larry Bird had accrued? For that matter, why would an 11-year-old Bostonian have the exact date of the Rodney King verdict committed to memory?
Even some of the book’s best writing suffers from this unconvincing voice. Early on in the novel David gives a lovely critical exegesis of the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” that struck me as at least 10 years too sophisticated for a sixth-grader. One of the book’s more affecting moments features new friends David and Marlon clowning and laughing together at the Greenfeld house after school:
Mar will let out a loud squawk that’ll make me roll even harder, and roll together for minutes straight—just making eye contact will keep things going for another round—and we’ll keep rolling till our abs hurt and the only way we can stop is turn our backs to each other. It’s starting to hit me: Mar isn’t just my best friend, he’s my first. Up until now I had no idea just how lonely I’d been.
I was moved by this passage, because it rang true to me as someone approaching middle age thinking back on my own life as an adolescent. It did not ring true to me as something an 11-year-old, even one as sensitive as David Greenfeld, would be inclined to articulate about himself.
Green might have worked better as a memoir, or as a third-person narrative told from the present day. That might have helped Graham-Felsen and his readers see his characters of color more completely than his callow narrator’s eyes, fixed so often on his own navel, are able to. Through David’s admiring gaze Marlon always remains frustratingly underformed; he alternately feels like a sort of idealized “good” black friend, or an impenetrable mystery whose life and circumstances David—by dint of his whiteness, his comparative affluence, and his stable home life—can never truly understand.
By the book’s end I couldn’t shake the sense that Green is a novel about whiteness written for white people, which isn’t the worst thing in the world—after all, many novels by and for white people never interrogate that whiteness at all. But at a certain point, guiltily obsessing over one’s bystander complicity in the structures of white supremacy becomes just another way of thinking about yourself, and each time the novel seemed to approach a moment of real reckoning, it appeared to lose its nerve. Like a free throw shooter with the yips, the book aims its shots rather than simply taking them. Green is never able to disentangle its critique of the world it inhabits from its nostalgia for it; as such it both illuminates a particular brand of whiteness while also, less fortunately, exemplifying it.
Green by Sam Graham-Felsen. Random House.
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