Bodega Dreams by Ernesto Quiñonez

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Bodega Dreams is set in Spanish Harlem, and it’s about Willie Bodega, an eternal dreamer and criminal and businessman and generous humanitarian, who spends his life, well, dreaming and engaging in criminal activities, but also with trying to make his neighborhood a better place, and it’s narrated by a cool and intelligent narrator, more or less an outsider.

Before I started reading, I investigated this novel and its author a bit, and I was surprised to see how one article compared Bodega Dreams to The Great Gatsby.

I have no idea whether I would have noticed the similarities on my own (I do hope so, The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite novels and I’d be ashamed not to notice if something is similar to it), but anyway, now that I already had this idea, it was easy (and entertaining) to see the similarities, of which there’s a lot: the relationship of the narrator and the main character is just like in The Great Gatsby; Willie Bodega’s dreams, flashy lifestyle, utter tastelessness, the desperate love he feels for a woman, and his extravagantly benevolent gifts all remind me of Gatsby; and of course, just like Gatsby, the inscrutable guardian angel of the Spanish Harlem also does everything for the sake of a woman – a woman who had to marry a rich man a long time ago, even though she was wildly in love with the then penniless Willie. Moreover, several famous episode or dialogs from The Great Gatsby are repeated here almost verbatim, in a slightly different context, sometimes with slightly different consequences, and observing all this is very intriguing.

All the more so because in The Great Gatsby, there’s a lot of talk about white supremacy: some Fitzgerald characters think very highly of their own white richness and lifestyle, and are shocked to see if non-white persons lead similar lives. So here we can see how it is when non-whites play at being Gatsby and try to realize the American Dream, which – as they are all first or second generation immigrants – is still new to them.

And the novel is good, even if we don’t look at the Gatsby parallels – Quiñonez is excellent at creating the atmosphere of places and events, and his Spanish Harlem is a wonderfully vivid, colorful, noisy, dangerous, and exciting place – it’s great to see it, it’s great to be inside it – it’s good to be in the middle of all this messy and wonderful life.

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