I bought Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas shortly after I’d just finished reading all of Junot Diaz’s books. I’d read in an interview with Diaz that Thomas’ book was a personal favorite of his, so I was curious. In the vein of numerous other first works by male authors, the novel is a memoir-based bildungsroman. Covering his early childhood until his mid-twenties, Thomas’ protagonist is himself and like so many other such tales set in New York heavily features drug use, criminal activities and racism.
I found the lyricism that some people have accredited to the writing to not be as prominent as suggested. Thomas certainly captures the Spanish Harlem patois of El Barrio, however there are few and far between extended passages of beautiful writing or musicality. Furthermore the third component of lyricism, profound insight into the human condition, is also an infrequent feature.
Given Thomas’ character as an adolescent – someone that abhors reading ad foregoes completing high school in order to deal drugs, robs people and uses intravenous and other drugs – this should come as no surprise. In the closing chapters, after much maturation, this finally happens. This is not to say that insight into the cause of internal conflict is not fully flushed out, but that Thomas’ does this via short scenes (sans lyrical introspection) that is neverthless engaging and at times heart-breaking to the empathetic reader.
The predominant internal conflict for Piri is reconciling himself to himself in the racist milieu of New York in the 1930’s. Piri’s family is of Puerto Rican extraction. His mother is white, his father black. His siblings are able to pass not only as puertorriqueño but as white. However Piri’s skin color, however, leads others to view him as black. This is something that Piri has trouble accepting, and this leads him to numb the pains of being born into such a caste, to fight those that would keep him there and to search for inner knowledge and confidence by an extended trip from New York to the Jim Crow South.
Much of the tales told by Thomas are picaresque in nature, the chapter ending on some comic high note, however those with Brew – his black friends – often end without such levity. Brew, black as black coffee, plays Piri’s guide to navigating the racial divide in America and his position is one of resigned, but still angry, acceptance. He sings Piri part of a song he learned as a child whose content is about accommodating oneself to oppression by white people, contrasting the genocidal behavior of the whites to the Native Americans for fighting for what traditionally was theirs to the merely exploitative behavior that blacks faced. A discussion between Piri, Brew another mixed race youth, though one with a more privileged background that is currently in college, leads to further troubling reflections on Piri’s racial identity.
After Piri’s returns his bad behavior catches up to him. After having become addicted to heroin and engaging in a number of armed robberies, he is caught and ends up imprisoned in Sing Sing. This is a pivotal period for Piri and the last arc of the books is his slow development into someone able to embody emotional intelligence and rely on the new insights he gained from prison study. He studies with the Nation of Islam, though later rejects ummah for the less exacting Christianity that he was raised on.