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THE BEST BOOKS OF 1996 | FICTION

PUSH By Sapphire: Alfred A. Knopf: 179 pp., $20

December 29, 1996|PAULA L. WOODS

"I was left back when I was 12 because I had a baby for my fahver."

The opening line of Sapphire's first novel hits the reader like a Mack truck, and it clearly signals that the literary ride ahead won't be in your father's Oldsmobile. The journey of Harlem teenager Claireece Precious Jones is sickening and confusing, painful and hopeful. By turns thought-provoking and horrifying, "Push" is sure to provoke passionate debate about the book's literary merits and the author's talents--as well as issues ranging from incest to teen pregnancy, literacy programs and welfare reform. Despite shortcomings, "Push" is a stunningly frank effort that marks the emergence of an immensely promising writer.

"Push" is an up-by-the-bra-strap success story, predictable as a TV movie refashioned for the downbeat '90s. It features the understandably enraged, savagely funny, totally unique voice of its protagonist. When we meet her, 16-year-old Precious is obese, illiterate and pregnant by her father for the second time. She's physically and sexually abused by her equally depraved mother.

Although right-wingers might dismiss the real-life Preciouses of this world as the Willie Hortons of welfare, Sapphire gives the fictional Precious something that surveys and case studies do not--a mind, a heart and a ferocious rage to survive.

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