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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Retrospective on The Fab 5

I have a confession to make.

Over the last three or four years I've been distancing myself from my first novel, The Fab 5.  I had what I thought was a good reason.  My grandmother, 84 years old at the time, read it.

The Fab 5.  Available on Amazon and B&N.


I never intended for her to read it.  I didn't write it for her.  And it never occurred to me for even a half a second that she would.  It's a street-flavored basketball story following five lifelong friends from Flatbush.  So when I wrote about some of the realities of living in a neighborhood not too dissimilar from the one in which I grew up, there was a heavy dose of, shall we say, colorful language.

                         Castillo’s face went purple, and I swear I saw steam come out of his ears. “Yo,
                   f*** you, you b****-a** monkey n****!”
                          Shiver stood up straight, shocked by the comment. He got right in between
                   Jay and Castillo, getting nearly nose-to-nose with him. “What did you say?”
                   Shiver said, as angry as I had ever seen him.
                          Jay forced his way back in between Shiver and Castillo, and forced them both
                    back. He held Shiver back, and turned to face the Puerto Rican kid. “F*** it,” he
                    said with a heavy sigh. “Get your squad together, Miguel.” Shiver stopped resisting,
                    and joined the four of us in a shocked look at Jay. “If it’s gonna shut his little
                    punk a** up, then fine, let’s beat him again.”
                         Castillo smiled as he walked past Jay. “Don’t go nowhere,” he said as he
                   walked toward the other side of the park. As he walked past Shiver, he said under
                   his breath, “B**** n****.”

And so on.  That is from page 18.  While some people were able to relate to and even appreciate the authenticity of the language -- if you grew up in a rougher neighborhood in New York, I suppose you would too -- I had some friends tell me they created the first literary drinking game in history for every time I swore in that book.  

Up until that point, the only book my grandmother had ever read was the Bible.  Sure, she read newspapers and magazines and such, but The Bible was all she read that came in a hardcover or paperback.  For the record, she still has both.  She had never read a novel.  

Until her youngest grandson gave her a signed copy of The Fab 5.

So several weeks later, when I did my good grandson thing and visited her after work, she looked at me sternly through her glasses like she always did and said in a thick Jamaican accent, "I read your book, Franklyn."  And suddenly every cuss word I wrote, every questionable situation I conceived flooded my head.  I mean, I referred to a certain female character in the five most unflattering ways you could in one line.  (I guess the fact that no word in that line was more than five letters can be considered impressive, if you squint one eye.)

My mouth hit the ground.   "You read it?!  Jeez, Mama, you weren't actually supposed to read the thing!"  I composed myself and cleared my throat.  "So what'd you think?"

She turned her attention to the word search puzzle she was doing and let the question hang for a while.  "I liked it," she said, I'm sure to be polite.  "Too many bad words though."

And just like that, my enthusiasm for promoting my first novel kind of tanked.  I was embarrassed that my grandmother read it.  There's no way there's a market for this thing, I thought.  And that was that.

Fast-forward to 2014.  I'm scrolling through Netflix and stumble across a documentary by Bobbito Garcia called Doin' It In the Park, which followed the streetball scene in the five boroughs, and suddenly I realize exactly how wrong I was.  Bobbito's respect for the sport that I played and loved was oozing from the film, and I saw elements of my book -- the gamesmanship, the competition, the trash-talking, the court culture and such-- played out in reality and motion.

I realized then that The Fab 5 did have value, and did have a market.  Was it perfect?  Not by any means. It's not even my best work; my second novel is leaps and bounds better, and all writers criticize their previous projects.  But it was an accurate depiction of what my world was like at 16, 17, and 18.  You had the park.  You had your crew.  You had a ball.

I may be more actively promoting my current novel, The Favorite, but my earlier work is (in my very humble and obviously biased opinion) very much worth the read.

And keep a bottle of Jack nearby in case you want to play the drinking game.

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