Moving Up

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Julio ("Chino") Mercado, the narrator of Ernesto Quinonez's fine debut novel, Bodega Dreams (Vintage Books; 213 pages, $12), knows the projects of Spanish Harlem in New York City. So he also knows that the best way to survive them is to get out. He and his pregnant wife Blanca are putting themselves through college at night. Their goals are the usual ones: to get nice jobs, to buy a house.

Willie Bodega's dreams are more ambitious and outrageous. A drug lord who uses profits from the trade to renovate condemned apartment buildings, finance scholarships and provide seed money for business ventures, Bodega is working hard to enter the mainstream. "I'm talking about owning the neighborhood legally," he says. "The way the Kennedys own Boston." He and his acolytes envision a Spanish Harlem populated by professionals born and bred in the neighborhood--and beholden to Bodega's largesse.

Eventually, Bodega's forces try to recruit Chino. "It's about upward mobility," Bodega's right-hand man tells Chino. The temptation is hard to resist. "Why not us?" Chino asks himself. "If these dreams...take off, El Barrio would burn like a roman candle, bright and proud."

Quinonez knows this 'hood--readers may have to remind themselves that this is a work of fiction and not a memoir. His prose, detailed and passionate, brings the tale to life. Though operating from different moral bases, Chino and Bodega share the same dream: to make Spanish Harlem a neighborhood where moving up doesn't have to mean moving out.