Sam Graham-Felsen explores privilege and maturity in debut novel ‘Green’
It’s 1992: Sony Walkmans are blaring Sir-Mix-A-Lot and TLC, George H.W. Bush is president and something called the World Wide Web is becoming a thing. “Green,” the debut novel of Sam Graham-Felsen, takes places in this era. It’s a story for the ages, a story on privilege, race and growing up — written with hilarious subtlety to keep you engrossed until the very last page.
Meet Dave Greenfield. He’s your typical awkward adolescent boy: trying to make friends, get flirty with the “shorties” and navigate through the 6th grade. He’s nerdy and a little neurotic — and one of the only white kids at a predominantly Black middle school.
His only hope is to test into the best public high school in Boston — Latin. It’s rich, it’s white, it’s where everyone wants to go. If he doesn’t get in, he’ll have to tough it out at English, a shank-packing high school on the wrong side of town, where Dave will be forever friendless and stuck on the White Bitch Bench at the front of the bus.
The novel is centered on the relationship between white Dave and his Black best friend Mar. Mar is a quiet kid who sits alone in the lunch room and hits the books every day in an effort to get into Latin. To Dave’s surprise, Mar stands up to Dave’s bully. Mar and Dave bond over their mutual obsession with the Celtics and as outsiders in their middle school. Soon, they are spending every moment together.
“It's a coming of age novel, but also a coming of awareness novel,” wrote Graham-Felsen about “Green” on his Twitter.
The progression of the book follows Dave’s realizations of all the breaks he gets in life — the breaks not afforded to Mar. When they shovel snow in their neighborhood, Mar has to wait at the edge of the driveway or else people won’t answer their door. When they try to sell a basketball card at the local pawn shop, the dirty white guy behind the counter makes them leave because Mar looks “suspicious.” When Mar’s mom attends the boys’ play performance, all the kids make fun of Mar’s mom as she has an episode, high on coke in the very front row.
It’s hard not to like Dave. It’s hard not to root for him to get into Latin, to escape the hardships associated with the gangs and violence at English. But consider the reader’s hopes for Dave against the real message the novel: Why does a book on race focus on the white kid, and why do we side with him? When Mar doesn’t get into Latin, we should be surprised, as Mar is far more intelligent than Dave. But no, we really aren’t that surprised. The nature of the book, of the very system that runs the ‘90s in America, suggests that kids like Mar can’t get ahead: That’s just the way it is.
“This isn’t some Jedi bullshit; the force I'm talking about is real, and its energies are everywhere, working on everyone,” Dave says. The force — what Dave calls the invisible powers of separation still felt between races in the ‘90s — is everywhere. It’s there when the Los Angeles riots break out, and Dave roots for a white trucker on the news who gets beat up by some Black guys. It’s there when Dave’s most prized possession, a Celtics Larry Bird card, goes missing, and he concludes that Mar must have taken it: a person who has never betrayed him. It’s there when Dave cheats off Mar on the big Latin acceptance test, and the old, racist white man excuses the action with a simple “You’re lucky this is my last year proctoring.”
The significance of publishing this story now is cause for consideration. The ‘90s were over 25 years ago, and one might assume these racial tensions are in the past. Yet, the LA riots aren’t so unlike that of the incidents in Charlottesville. People are still posting nasty posters right here on our campus. The racial tensions aren’t gone, they just manifest themselves in different ways.
The force, as Dave calls it, can still be felt today. If you don’t think about how the force gives and takes advantage, it’s a safe bet that you came from a white privileged background. “Green” is written to stir thoughts, to rouse people to open their eyes to reality. Brutally honest, sharp and witty, the power of Sam Graham-Felson’s words are enough to lift up entire worlds.