By Ernesto Quinonez.
213 pages
New York: A Vintage Contemporaries Original, 2000.
ISBN # 0-375-70589-0

Comments of Bob Corbett
August 2002

Willie Bodega has strange and grandiose dreams. He will finance a welfare-state in East Harlem, Manhattan, New York, with drug monies. Further, it will be the basis of his own children’s’ respectability. Bodega holds that virtually all great fortunes were raised with crooked money, and he happens to be the first in his family to raise the fortune. He hires slick and smooth lawyer, Edwin Nazario to run the more or less legal portion of the dream and to build the empire of legal enterprises. Early on in the project Bodega is running his mini-welfare state, rehabbing abandoned buildings in East Harlem and renting them out to the deserving Puerto Ricans at below market rent. He is subsidizing the college tuition of an entire professional class from El Barrio who will eventually run this enterprise and give respectablity to Puerto Ricans just as Joe Kennedy gave respectability to the Kennedy clan.

The story is told by Julio (Chino – nicknames are critical in Spanish Harlem), a bright kid, student at Hunter college, married to the beautiful and Pentecostal Blanca (Nancy), who is on his way up and out. But, under the influence of his tough buddy, Sapo, he ends up involved with Bodega and his crazy, utopian and contradictory dream. Things seem to flow along with the sole major problem being how is Bodega going to oust former East Harlem lord, Aaron Fischman, and take over the drug trade in the whole of the area. This turns out to be the least of his worries, and then enters the love story which eventually brings Bodega and his dreams crashing down. In his youth as a revolutionary Bodega fell in love with Veronica Salivia, aunt of Chino’s wife, Blanca. Veronica moved off to Miami, changed her name to the more Cuban flavored Vera and married a much older and very rich Cuban. But all these many years Bodega harbored his love for Veronica, and now, rich and on his way to his utopian dream, he endeavors to bring Veronica back from Miami to be his woman.

Everything turns, and falls, on Veronica, and eventually Bodege and his dream come crashing down, yet life goes on in the barrio.

Ernesto Quinonez, in his first novel, tells a gripping and at times hopeful story. Yet there are contradictions in the central character of Bodega from the start. While he seems learned in his analysis of the origins of great fortunes and how they develop, most of his knowledge is revealed as shallow as public TV. The difficult contradiction is not seriously addressed: how does one live the rugged and brutal life dictated by the world of big-time drug dealer and yet maintain the long-term social views of a utopian reformer. In the end the contradiction fails and Bodega turns out to be an interesting, even likeable romantic (if romantic killer), and the dream is lost in his own stupidity and cupidity.

This contradiction doesn’t made Willie Bodega and his dream less interesting. Actually Willie’s eventual fall from success lends credence to the exotic character that he is, and suggests that Quinonez is an up and coming author worth hearing.

Ernesto Quinonez studied writing at The City College of New York and in 2000 was teaching bilingual fourth grade in the New York public school system (which was actually suggested of his main character, Chino, in this first novel).

Bob Corbett

Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett