I found my way to Spidertown, Abraham Rodriguez’s first novel, when I was trying to understand what had happened to The Bronx, trying to track its trajectory from a bustling working class neighbourhood to a derelict hell hole where the burnt out hulks of six story buildings stretched for blocks – the post-apocalyptic neighbourhood across the river from Manhattan. The stretch of streets where 16 year old Miguel lives is known as Spidertown, named for the drug dealer that he works for. Miguel shares a rundown apartment with Firebug, a teenage arsonist for hire. And, when Firebug torches a building, Miguel and Amelia, Firebug’s girlfriend, are his popcorn-eating audience, “cheering when the water gun on a pumper nailed the building with a loud crash that sent bits of metal and wood flying, flames scurrying away.”
It looked to me like Rodriguez was the only one chronicling day-to-day life in place that everyone else either dismissed or romanticised. Miguel’s single wall decoration is “a framed metal sheet, the kind they use to board up windows on abandoned buildings facing the expressway. It had shutters and a flowerpot on a fake sill painted right on it.” He drives his treasured car down derelict streets. And those streets finally get noticed after a particularly brutal shooting turns the sidewalk dealers into impromptu tour guides: “They walked reporters through the rubble, they showed off their guns, even taking one lucky white journalist up to a roof to show how they sniped at people.”
Articles from the time depicted Rodriguez as nervy with success: walking out of The Strand Bookstore with a stack of Russian classics, obliquely dismissing Tom Wolfe as a guy in white suit who thought he could tell people in the Bronx about their lives. During a visit to Rodriguez’s boyhood school, a reporter wrote, he took a microphone from the school’s principal and handed it to the students so he could hear what they had to say.
Spidertown was published in 1993. Hollywood had just discovered a new generation of ghetto stories: Boyz in the Hood, Menace II Society, and South Central were all big box office. Spidertown was a sensation -- it won the American Book Award; film rights were sold to Columbia.
And then, Rodriguez seemed to fade into the background. His second novel, The Buddha Book, about two Bronx teenagers who publish an underground comic book, was dismissed as a “disappointing sophomore effort” by Publishers Weekly. Junot Diaz sounded like the lone supporter when he announced that: “ Rodriguez’s writing has never been more accomplished, more lyrical, more trenchant, or more humane. ”
The film version of Spidertown never was made. South by South Bronx, Rodriguez’s next novel, was published by Akashic Books, “dedicated to publishing urban literary fiction and political nonfiction by authors who are either ignored by the mainstream, or who have no interest in working within the ever-consolidating ranks of the major corporate publishers.” There were no big promos for the non-linear Noir, but this time Publishers Weekly noted that “the novel carries the reader along by the force of its hypnotic prose.”
Re-reading Spidertown 20 years after it first came out is a revelation – its descriptions of what first love feels like, its complex characters (Amelia, the psychology student who likes a hit of crack), and, finally, its allegiance to both realism and redemption – no cynicism, no contrivances, and no easy outs. I was surprised, too, at how many of Rodriguez’s stylistic techniques had stayed with me – those quick descriptions of a cop looking “like some Hispanic borough president,” the dropped consonants and fast riffs of New Yorkers, and, especially, the way he stops the text – stops the action – in the middle of the page by suspending the words
A few weeks ago, I searched for information on Rodriguez and landed on his webpage. He lives in Berlin now, where he ‘s revived the New York punk band he played with, 'Urgent Fury' (also the name the US military used for its 1983 invasion of Grenada). He translates screenplays from German to English. And he’s announced that a short story of his that recently came out -- about time traveling freedom fighters who visit a drug dealer in the Bronx – can be read as a trailer for his new novel. The Boy Without a Flag, a short story collection published the year before Spidertown, is still sold by Milkweed Editions, the small press that first issued it in 1992. And the title story, about a Bronx school boy betrayed by his pro-independence Puerto Rican father, is widely read in schools in the United States – a set piece for discussions about immigration and identity, authority and obedience. But Spidertown and The Buddha Book are both out of print now, not even available in digital editions.
Published before public conversations and proclamations about what we cared about left a trail online, you can only find a handful of reader reviews about a book that shook up almost everyone who read it. There isn’t much evidence of the impact that Spidertown had. This reader review, left on Amazon in 1999, when Spidertown was still being kept in print, explains part of why Rodriguez’s work is important:
During Spidertown's first printing I read it and was so moved I passed the book along, it found its way from Co-Op City to Fordham, from Harlem to Queens ... and it may have been the first and last time that those friends of mine, some of them no longer with us, saw their lives portrayed in print with the honesty and pride that they deserve ... Abraham Rodriguez. gave them something precious ... the knowledge that our stories are worth telling ... worth reading .... I never did get that original copy back, it's nice to know the book has been reprinted ... it's nice to know Rodriguez' genius has been recognized ... it's nice to have our stories told with such dignity ... finally ...
Linda Mannheim is the author of Above Sugar Hill the next Influx Press book to be published. Pre-order a copy of the paperback here for 25% RRP