By Katy Goodwin-Bates
I’m a sucker for a New York story; give me subway journeys, trips to Coney Island, and any reference at all to Central Park and I’m a goner. Even better, give me a story about one of the five boroughs that isn’t over-used Manhattan, and I’m hopelessly and gloriously lost. In this respect, Sofia Quintero’s Show and Prove absorbed me entirely with its South Bronx setting. Just to make me drool a little more, Show and Prove is set in 1983, the year I was born; this does not imply some kind of narcissistic urge to read books with a timeline as old as I am, but rather gives me enough familiarity with pop culture and historical references to avoid Googling every other page. Reading this book was like being ushered into a very enlightening and uber-cool time machine.
Quintero’s main characters are Raymond “Smiles” King and Guillermo “Nike” Vega, best friends from South Bronx who find themselves starting to drift apart when Smiles accepts a place at a prestigious boys’ school, leaving Nike to fend for himself at their local, racially flammable high school. The jacket talks about the boys’ summer as camp counselors and their potential romances, giving the sense that Show and Prove is a kind of diverse Saved by the Bell; really, it’s a far more nuanced story of growing up amid racial tensions, class war, and family strife. Quintero manages with ease to convey both the fun side of growing up and the more insidious, racially charged gang activity surrounding Smiles and Nike.
I’ve been consciously trying to read more diversely recently, and have observed that the clash of cultures that takes place between white people and people of color often forms a central part of these narratives. Show and Prove educated me in the tensions that exist between other ethnic groups. Smiles, who is black, is outraged to be passed over as Chief Counselor in favor of Cookie, who is Hispanic, by the camp leader, who is also Hispanic. When accused of racial bias, the boss’ explanation is succinct: “It’s ridiculous that Black History Month is the shortest month of the year, but at least you get those twenty-eight days of recognition. We only get a week, and it’s not even official.” Race is an important theme elsewhere in the novel too, with Smiles spending time with Qusay, a black converted Muslim with links to the Nation of Gods and Earths and the Five Percenters, groups of which I had no previous knowledge (while I didn’t have to look up the Run-DMC references, some of the history was new to me). Particularly given race-related events in the USA this year, the way in which Quintero grounds the novel in reality is very relevant.
The reality is we have to judge. It’s human nature. If everyone else is doing it, you can’t be the sucker singing “Kumbaya.” If you don’t judge in a judgmental world, you won’t survive. Not if you want to make something of yourself. If you don’t make judgments, you make the wrong friends. You walk down the wrong street and, yes, wear the wrong clothes.
The main triumph of Show and Prove is the easy lyricism of the dialogue and first person narratives of Smiles and Nike. The consistency of language in their conversations and inner thoughts is very effective in immersing the reader in their stories. I’m confident that Quintero’s aim in writing this book wasn’t to encourage 33-year-old white women to use “word” as a term of agreement, but there’s something intoxicating about the richness of the language here, which could have been trite but is actually vital and authentic–descriptions which can also be applied to other aspects of the novel. A key part of Nike’s character is his love of breakdancing, which culminates in a dance competition described in such detail it reads like a sports commentary; in an interview, Quintero explains that she hired a choreographer to create the battle scenes, and it shows. I may not know what a “toprock” or a “belly mill” look like, but the pace and urgency of Nike’s moves are abundantly clear.
Show and Prove ticked so many of my reading boxes: it immersed me in a time and place which were familiar without being routine; it gave me a cast of fully realized characters, all of whom I could care about without any of them being unrealistically perfect; and it almost has a built-in soundtrack, referencing hip-hop of the early ’80s in a way that binds it closely to the story. It’s an appealingly compact novel, casting its net over a few blocks of the Bronx over the course of one summer, which allows the reader to get to know Smiles and Nike without a superfluous amount of detail. Having read it a few weeks ago, I continue to find my thoughts returning to it, almost forgetting that the characters are fictional and not real people I know. Sadly, this affectionate familiarity hasn’t improved my breakdancing, but there’s always hope.
Show and Prove is available now at GPL.