A Lot to Say about Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes

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Bronx Masquerade
By Nikki Grimes

Bronx Masquerade. I’m torn on this book. My first impression was that the voice was good but not as good as Tyrell by Coe Booth, and that the book was a yawner. I couldn’t get into the world, couldn’t “see” it. I had that first problem, the seeing, all the way through even though I later found that the book was not a yawner at after all.

Setting: There is very little setting here. Below I comment on this being like a stage performance, and if it were, it’d be stripped down to nothing, like Our Town. Maybe less. Black stage, spotlights. Nothing else. Imagining it like that actually helped me get interested in the characters and what they had to say.

Story/stakes: The story seems to be a group of random kids in an English class that grow beyond their preconceptions about one another. Very real and fascinating, but I missed the narrative arc and the stakes. What matters? All the students grow, true, but there was no thread to follow. No way in which all these characters coming to understand one another did anything. I’m thinking of RK’s book The Brimstone Journals with a very strong thread, and I found myself wishing there was more tension, more to get me turning each page. It seems to me the only character with real forward-moving conflict is the girl introduced at the end. It’s almost as if the whole book is a writing exercise to introduce *her* story (of being a biracial black-Vietnamese). Talk about conflict.

The number of characters I found confusing, got sick of flipping back to see who was who, and even in the final pages a new voice got introduced. I didn’t form an emotional bond with anyone.

Character(s)/voice(s): Reading this book as a novel, as stories ... it didn’t work. What finally got me past the “WTF is going on?” was thinking of it as a collection of dramatic monologues. Each character is totally in voice (even if some were not as distinct as I might have liked) and rather than being a dramatized scene, it is more like a character standing alone on stage in a black turtleneck and stretch pants with someone drumming softly in the background (or humming, perhaps) and giving a, well, a monologue. Backdrops aren’t painted, story isn’t told, it’s character that is central and what the character has to say about him or herself. That is what got me hooked on it. Imagining the kids on stage (not just reading the poems) and Tyrone alone in the front row of the amphitheater nodding or shaking his head or whatever. I’d love to see a class “perform” this novel, actually. It could be brilliant.

Speaking of Tyrone—he could be seen as the central character, yet I’m distanced. He’s not really yearning for anything. Yearning, I suppose, but not dying for want of anything. He seems more like an observer, like that narrator in Our Town (I think—it’s been a long time since I last saw it). He’s changed by the end, but contrast this ending with Looking For Alaska. You have a school assembly, some humor, but one is emotionally wrenching after a powerful, moving story. The other is ... meh.

The poems: Here I didn't think the individual voices held up as well. Each poem uses the same devices (unexpected rhyme, lots of rhythm but without a strong beat), which I suspect are more techniques Grimes leans on in her own poetry than ones she self-consciously gave to her characters. On the plus side, some struck me as seeming very teenager-ish, i.e., melodrama and cliché, while others had more meat to them. A “mirror” image appeared repeatedly. Interesting since so much of the book was about identity—of self and others. Smart.

Perhaps I’m missing something major here or don’t know how to read or haven’t yet read enough, or something else. But this one didn’t capture me. The form is cool. But the execution as a novel? I’m not so sure. Again, as a performance piece it would rock.