Author Abraham Rodriguez delves into Barrio noir in “South by South Bronx”
By Carolina González
A mysterious blond appears naked in the bed of an aimless man who has frequent blackouts. She’s got a pair of Manolo Blahniks, a secret and a gun.
This scenario would fit right in with the hardboiled detective novels from the 1950s, the ones starring cynical gumshoes like Mike Hammer or Philip Marlowe.
Instead, it’s the opening to Abraham Rodríguez’s new novel, “South by South Bronx” (Akashic Books, $15.95), which intersects concerns about terrorism, changes in the drug trade and gentrification with Hitchcockian double-crosses and a mountain of cash.
The novel, Rodríguez’s third, takes the Bronx-born writer’s longtime concerns about Puerto Rican identity and street-level realism and meshes them with the structure of a classic pulp fiction narrative.
“It wasn’t a conscious thing, ‘I’m going to do a mystery book,’” says Rodríguez, whose first novel, the gritty and lyrical “Spidertown,” was published in 1994.
“I always wanted to do something with a Puerto Rican cop, and I’m obsessed with the concept of dragging Puerto Ricans into Americana,” he adds over the phone from Northern California, where he began his book tour last week.
“South by South Bronx” is divided into two narratives, set off by the use of different typefaces.
One follows Sánchez, a Puerto Rican police detective who has been shunned by his fellow officers for investigating a vigilante cop and is now sought out by a federal agent involved in a drugs-money-terrorism case.
Sánchez is a character borrowed from “Spidertown,” which depicted the world of young violent street dealers in the South Bronx.
The other storyline follows Alex, a heartbroken Puerto Rican slacker who has so many alcohol-induced blackouts he never questions the presence of a strange blond woman in his bed.
This story has a subplot involving two Puerto Rican artists, a writer named Monk and a painter named Mink, who are brought out of their creative blocks by the sight of the blond, Ava Reynolds.
“I saw it as two books, a dual narrative,” says Rodríguez. “Some people were disoriented at first reading it, but already in my last book, I was tired of the linear thing.”
Rodríguez’s South Bronx roots have always been a deeply specific source of inspiration, and in this novel, like in his others, it almost becomes a character of its own.
“I’ve always thought of the Bronx as a small town, and I see things changing, I see the world coming into the Bronx,” he says.
Rodríguez calls his novel “a tribute to New York” — a city that has changed, not necessarily for the better in the last decade.
It’s a view he has from Berlin, where he’s been living for the past eight years with his wife, whom he met there.
He says that while he loves his hometown and continues to visit yearly, Berlin has been personally and creatively enriching for him.
“It’s a very open kind of place, aesthetically, and in quality of life. Try walking with a beer down the street here [New York],” he says, citing laws like the city’s indoor smoking ban as “coercive.”
Is he still the “angry young man” he was portrayed as in the mid-1990s, when he denounced the notion of “Latino literature” as one uniform nostalgic immigrant story?
“I’m not angry, I was never angry, I just feel strongly about things,” he says. “The passion is real.”