“The problem with my life was that it was someone else’s idea.”
Aristotle Mendoza is fifteen. One steamy hot morning, he wakes up to a song on the radio he hates. “I was bored. I was miserable…The DJ was annoying. He’s yelling: ‘Wake up El Paso. It’s June fifteenth, 1987!’” But Ari doesn’t feel like waking up. It’s not until the DJ plays La Bamba, that he thinks he might be able to cope with this day.
Ari greets his mother in the kitchen and we immediately see the two of them have a warm relationship. Ari and his father – more problematic. Ari’s father fought in Vietnam and the war changed him. “So I was the son of a man who had Vietnam living inside him. Yeah, I had all kinds of tragic reasons for feeling sorry for myself. Being fifteen didn’t help. Sometimes I thought that being fifteen was the worst tragedy of all.”
One of those tragedies is that he has a brother, eleven years older than he, in prison. His parents don’t talk about him. There are no photos of him in the house. It’s as if his brother doesn’t exist.
On this day, though, Ari’s life will take an unexpected turn when he goes to the local pool. He doesn’t know how to swim, so he sits on the edge of the pool, eventually floating in the shallow end. And then he hears a voice: “I can teach you how to swim.” When it turns out the boy’s name is Dante, “…we both kind of went a little crazy. Laughing…I wondered what it was we were laughing about. Was it just our names?”
These are smart, funny teens who know who their namesakes were. They ride the bus and make up stories about the riders. They argue about comics vs. literature. “I was darker than he was. And I’m not just talking about our skin coloring. He told me I had a tragic vision of life. ‘That’s why you like Spider-Man.’” Dante, on the other hand, likes Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Ari reads it and tells Dante he hates it, when in fact, he loves it. Then Ari discovers it’s one of his father’s favorite books. “I wanted to ask him if he’d read it before or after he’d fought in Vietnam. It was no good to ask my father questions. He never answered them.”
And so, Ari, a loner, a kid who doesn’t seem to fit in, has found a friend. He has to admit to himself, “Dante. I really liked him. I really, really liked him.”
This is a novel that begins with two young teens finding each other. It ends with them finding themselves and learning what it means to be true to who you are. And they both, over the next two years, grow up.
This novel, of two boys coming to terms with their sexuality, is beautifully written as can be attested to by the four awards it received: The Michael L. Printz Award, the Stonewall Book Award, the Pura Belpre’ Award and the Lambda Literary Award. If you haven’t already read this one, I encourage you to read it now. You know you have the time.