Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Third and Indiana (Reviewed May 2008)

Third and Indiana, Steve Lopez (1994)[*****]. This novel by a former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist is set at and around Third and Indiana Streets, one of the most notorious drug corners in Philadelphia, located in a neighborhood called Kensington, aka The Badlands. Gabriel is a fourteen year old Hispanic boy who dreams of being an artist, but in the meantime gets caught up in the drug trade that along with prostitution is the main industry in Kensington, now that all the factories and mills are closed. Gabriel has run away from home, and his mother, Ofelia, rides the streets each night searching for him on the bike he bought her with his drug money. In her search for Gabriel, she befriends a priest who has recently been relocated to Holy Ghost church in Kensington, slated to be closed by the archdiocese because of declining attendance and revenues. After leaving home to make his fortune as a crew chief at Third and Indiana, Gabriel befriends Eddie, a South Philly jazz musician who has recently left his wife and kids, only to be dumped by the girlfriend he left them for. Eddie has moved into a row house in Kensington owned by his slumlord mother until he gets back on his feet, and Gabriel moves in with him. Eddie and Gabriel are both in trouble, respectively, with an Italian South Philly wise-guy, and with a psychotic North Philadelphia drug lord, who are after them for largely imagined offenses. The novel's plot centers largely on Ofelia's search for Gabriel, and a caper involving the theft of a huge diamond ring from the finger of the recently dead and wildly corrupt mayor DeMarco. (This story-line might strain credulity if it weren't for the fact that stuff like this actually happens in Philadelphia.) But the plot is not the reason to read this book, and not why I loved it so incredibly much. This book captures Philadelphia in general, and Kensington in particular, so perfectly, it took my breath away. I run programs for kids at C and Indiana, about five blocks away from where this novel is set, and I drive by Third and Indiana all the time. There were passages that made me laugh out loud in a "it's funny 'cause it's true" kinda way ("You take everybody in Kensington, you can't make one set of fuckin' teeth" says one of Eddie's downtown buddies). Much of it was too hard to read quickly (one of my boys, Joey, also an artist, lives right around the corner from Third and Indiana ... the chances of him being dead or in jail in five years are about 1000 times greater than the chance he'll be headed off to art school in five years.... ). The characters are, for the most part, thoughtful portraits. Non-Philly readers might think a few of them are unfair caricatures, but I'm not kidding, this stuff really happens in Philly. The prose only occasionally lapses into sentimentality, and once in awhile Lopez uses a character to tell us Something We Need To Know (he used to get a little soap-boxy in his columns too). But most of the time this novel is just really really good.

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