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Webs Spun of Money : SPIDERTOWN, By Abraham Rodriguez Jr. (Hyperion: $19.95; 323 pp.)

June 13, 1993|Michael Harris | Harris is a regular contributor to Book Review

The more things stay the same, the more they change. The New York slang in Abraham Rodriguez Jr.'s novel about Latino crack dealers in the South Bronx is the great-grandchild of the New York slang in Stephen Crane's "Maggie: A Girl of the Streets" (1893). Part of the plot of "Spidertown" has been heisted from the granddaddy of American drug novels, Nelson Algren's "The Man With the Golden Arm" (1949). Yet something is radically different nowadays, and it can be summed up in one word:

Money.

Maggie's reward for drifting into prostitution and an early death is a few dollars, a few beers, the glitter of saloon mirrors. In Algren's Chicago, Frankie Machine and his hustler pals have little hope of escaping the poverty of Division Street. Like the bums just below them, they share "the great, secret and special American guilt of owning nothing . . . in the one land where ownership and virtue are one."

Not so for Miguel, the 16-year-old hero of "Spidertown." He is rich beyond the dreams of his laborer father, of his father's whole Puerto Rican immigrant generation. Miguel is a "runner." He delivers cocaine to street dealers who work for Spider, the local kingpin. He risks being arrested, beaten, shot. In return, he has a car with cherry-red leather upholstery (though he is too young to register it), $8,000 in savings (though he is too young to get a bank card), flashy clothes, an apartment and enough drugs to maintain a harem of crack-hungry girlfriends.

What's happened? Three things. The development of a cheap, smokable form of cocaine. The continuing folly of our "war on drugs," which made the stuff obscenely profitable. And the collapse of values opposed to the profit motive. For the first time in 150 years, there are no socialists around to keep capitalism semi-honest. The poor can exploit or pervert the system but can no longer conceive of changing it. Thus Spider, who claims to be leading a revolution on behalf of brown and black people, has no political agenda; he operates strictly as an entrepreneur.

And entrepreneurship, as Miguel observes, does work after a fashion. "Spider can grab a 10-year-old kid and turn him into a successful businessman faster than IBM or ITT. He sounds like a proud camp counselor, talking about giving kids the chance they need, providing the incentive. . . . No school, no company does that. . . . He shows off Danny, his resident poster child, 11 years old, with his own GTO, dope threads and five girlfriends. . . . Every little kid that sees him goes WOW. . . . (Danny always displays his midget .32)."

In "Spidertown," the money corrupts everything. It destroys childhood. It devalues education and hard work. It makes parents look like fools. It buys the police. It turns youth gangs into a vicious parody of the corporate world--a world of universal mistrust in which love and friendship (never mind concern for the drug user or the neighborhood) must be sacrificed to the bottom line.

Yet love and friendship are what Rodriguez wants to celebrate. In this scary, sexy, exuberant first novel, even the most hardened "posse boys" make fumbling, abortive efforts to reach out to one another. Love is what ultimately saves Miguel from the streets--the love of a good girl, Cristalena, and the love of an older woman, Amelia, a college-educated addict who divides her favors between Spider and Miguel's roommate, Firebug, an arsonist hired by slumlords who want their tenement buildings torched for the insurance.

"Spidertown" is just as much a fairy tale as "West Side Story." This is not necessarily a criticism. People who write about society's lower depths are, by definition, outsiders or escapees. They all have theories to impose on their material. Crane, in the age of "scientific" naturalism, refused to let Maggie transcend her surroundings; he kept his ironic distance as she struggled and fell. Algren got down among his characters, but the very poetry with which he recorded their lives set him apart. Rodriguez writes at a time when nobody expects anything from slum kids but failure. At his most idealistic, he wants to make this their fairy tale, not ours. At his canniest--shaping this novel as a possible script for a Major Latino Motion Picture--he knows that we would rather be rooters than voyeurs.

Watch how he sets up Miguel for the happy ending to come. The young man's background is as brutal and squalid as the Bowery that Crane described a century ago, but Miguel, unlike Maggie, somehow has acquired taste and discipline. He decorates his apartment. He does 200 sit-ups a day. He reads books, just because his father hated them. He reads Dickens and Tolstoy, no less. After a typical evening's adventures--bullet holes in his trunk, a shakedown by the cops, maybe an orgy--he tapers off with a few pages of "Oliver Twist."

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