Green: A Novel

  • Review
By – February 28, 2018

In his debut nov­el, Green, Sam Gra­ham-Felsen achieves an extra­or­di­nary bal­anc­ing act, cre­at­ing a poignant and con­vinc­ing com­ing-of-age sto­ry while at the same time reflect­ing much larg­er themes about race and the country’s chang­ing social land­scape. Set in Boston in the 1990s, Green is the sto­ry of sixth grad­er Dave Green­feld, one of the only white stu­dents at an inner city mid­dle school. The child of lib­er­al, Har­vard-edu­cat­ed urban pio­neers, Dave finds him­self the unwit­ting par­tic­i­pant in a unique social exper­i­ment in which he must nav­i­gate the dual chal­lenges of ado­les­cence and his own com­pli­cat­ed racial identity.

The book strange­ly echoes two very dis­parate works of non­fic­tion. The first, Com­mon Ground, is the Pulitzer Prize-win­ning book by J. Antho­ny Lukas that chron­i­cled race rela­tions dur­ing Boston’s bus­ing cri­sis of the 1970s. Like the Green­felds, one of the fam­i­lies in Com­mon Ground, the Divers, are also white lib­er­als who attend­ed Har­vard and live in a tran­si­tion­ing neigh­bor­hood in Boston. Though well-inten­tioned, the Divers and the Green­felds find them­selves on the front lines of a com­mu­ni­ty torn apart by race and class divi­sions, and both fam­i­lies put them­selves in unin­tend­ed jeopardy.

While Com­mon Ground’s flash­point moment is the bus­ing cri­sis, Green dives in at anoth­er crit­i­cal turn­ing point, the L.A. riots. In a pow­er­ful and com­plex moment, Dave watch­es in hor­ror as the after­math of the Rod­ney King ver­dict sends L.A. into a whirl­wind of vio­lence, capped off when an inno­cent white truck dri­ver, Regi­nald Den­ny, is dragged from his cab and beat­en by a group of angry African Amer­i­cans on live tele­vi­sion. While Dave’s friends and neigh­bors cheer the beat­ing, Dave feels sick to his stom­ach; he seems to intu­itive­ly under­stand that this moment sig­nals a new divide between him and his class­mates and between white and black Amer­i­ca. Almost imme­di­ate­ly after the riots, Dave is tar­get­ed and seen as an ene­my in a way that he hadn’t been before.

Dave’s jour­ney also iron­i­cal­ly mir­rors that of radio per­son­al­i­ty Howard Stern, cap­tured in his raunchy auto­bi­og­ra­phy, Pri­vate Parts. Like Dave’s moth­er, Stern’s moth­er was a devot­ed lib­er­al who stayed in their Long Island neigh­bor­hood as its pre­dom­i­nant­ly white and Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion left, and black res­i­dents moved in — leav­ing Stern to be mer­ci­less­ly bul­lied by some of his black class­mates in high school. Like Stern, Graham-Felsen’s Dave has an obser­vant, hon­est sense of humor. Yet, while Stern becomes a racial­ly-charged provo­ca­teur, Dave has a much more sen­si­tive and nuanced reac­tion, long­ing to belong to the cul­ture that seems hell-bent on reject­ing him. Gra­ham-Felsen paints a vivid pic­ture of the cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty badges for urban boys that Dave des­per­ate­ly longs to wear: the Geto Boys, Nin­ten­do, Air Jor­dans, and the NBA’s Char­lotte Hor­nets, led by black super­star Lar­ry Johnson. 

Howard Stern, writ­ing as an adult, pep­pered his book with punch lines and provo­ca­tions, while Gra­ham-Felsen, writ­ing as ado­les­cent Dave, fills his book with heart­break­ing insights, dif­fi­cult ques­tions, and the faint but pal­pa­ble hope of build­ing bridges. Green brave­ly tack­les the most intractable ques­tions of race and iden­ti­ty from an unusu­al van­tage point, ele­gant­ly reveal­ing sur­pris­ing complexities.

Robert Sharenow’s debut My Moth­er the Cheer­leader was named one of the Best Books of the Year” by the Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion, School Library Jour­nal, and the New York Pub­lic Library. The Berlin Box­ing Club, his sec­ond nov­el, won the Syd­ney Tay­lor Book Award and was a final­ist for the Walden Award. He cur­rent­ly serves as Exec­u­tive Vice Pres­i­dent and G.M. of A&E Net­work and Lifetime.

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