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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Chango's Fire by Ernesto Quinonez ( A Book Review)

A gripping tale of inner-city arson, the American Dream, and community in Spanish Harlem

"Chango’s Fire" by Ernesto Quinonez

Published: October 2005

Rating:  5.0/5.0 stars

Pros: Interesting plot. intriguing characters, and interesting cultural exploration

Cons: Not so much

Julio, the main character of the story, sums up his life goal in one poignant phrase: “I will not die paying rent.” (pg. 13) It’s his version of the American Dream freed from the obstacles and struggles that his parents went through while making their life in America.

Julio is well on his way towards that goal. He is going to school, has a job, and even owns the floor of a building.

There is just one tiny problem…

Julio also has another job and his decisions on that job threaten to unravel everything he’s worked so hard for within minutes.

Julio Santana burns buildings. Not for fun or thrills, but for profit. Call it “gentrification” or “redevelopment”, but when Julio leaves the job, the building is left is ashes. Julio is paid to burn buildings for a contractor who earns money from the insurance payments.

Julio is real good at his job, but the job is taking a toll on him. He is tired of the secrecy, the community members who have to find new homes, and the hypocrisy of the whole insurance scam that he is in.

In the course of doing a job, he breaks two rules, one mentioned and the other never discussed:
1.       Rule #1: Don’t bring anything from the scene. (He saves a scared cat.)
2.       Rule #2: Don’t quit. (He decides to quit).

From that point on, this story takes a wild and interesting journey through religion, culture, language, love, discrimination, poverty, and hope with a cast of uniquely human characters and relationships that readers won’t soon forget.

Readers of Ernesto Quinonez’s earlier book, "Bodega Dreams", about inner-city poverty and the complicated struggle to get out ,will find a similar plot and themes in both "Bodega Dreams" and "Chango’s Fire". The main and supporting characters are almost identical. Julio is a young man who works in the day and attends school at night, befriends a mentally disabled person who is often ridiculed by the community, and ends up in a high-stakes situation just like Chino in "Bodega Dreams". There is an exception or two, but for the most part, every character in "Bodega's Dreams" is similar to "Chango's Fire".

Despite those similarities, the difference lies in something else. In "Chango’s Fire", the author displays a boldness to delve further into the Spanish Harlem of his characters. The author delves into topics of religion, sexuality, and ethnic identity in a way that adds substance to the story. By bringing these issues out in the open in such an authentic way, the author vividly demonstrates both the beautiful and harsh realities of living in Spanish Harlem. "Chango’s Fire" is as much a story about a community as it is about one character.

If you haven’t read Bodega Dreams, readers won’t miss anything because "Chango's Fire" is a stand-alone book. ("Bodega Dreams" should be read first in my opinion.) The author’s first-person storytelling of his life is written in such an authentic way that readers will get involved with the story before they even know it. The plot only adds to that effect because it offers a winding series of changes that coincides with the main character’s change of heart and spirit. In the beginning, Julio starts off as a person who is a just a member of the community. By the end, he feels more than that. He connects with that community in the same climatic epiphany-creating way that the movie “Fight Club” ended. 
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