It’s 1983, and Allie is a student struggling to make ends meet. Her ex-boyfriend stole $7,000 from her, so now she has no way of paying her rent or tuition. She and her best friend have been slaving away at a Berkeley dress shop that’s actually a drug front. In one afternoon it all comes crashing down: her boss refuses to pay her the money she’s owed, and she bolts from the store with a Wonder Bread bag filled with pure cocaine.
Her boss sends a hitman named Vice Versa on her tail, and Allie sets off to LA in search of her parents, hoping that they’ll know what to do. Her father is aloof and hard to track down, and her unreliable mother left them long ago to be a tambourine player in a band that’s currently opening for Billy Idol. In her frantic search for her parents, she’ll also come across an old friend from high school, a paraplegic pornographer (who brings to mind Larry Flynt), and a hot surfer dude who turns out to be a dealer who wants her stash.
The Wonder Bread Summer wants to be that kind of book: an irreverent, zany whirlwind of an adventure that keeps readers entertained with all of its ridiculous scenarios. I do think Blau has the skills to have pulled it off. Unfortunately, what many call “satire,” some call hipster racism. And this book smacks of it.
Most of the characters in this book, you see, are people of color. And under other circumstances, I would probably find that freaking amazing. But hahaha, joke’s on us! That white girl you see on the book cover? That’s Allie, whose father is black/white and mother is Chinese/Jewish. Allie’s Chinese grandmother, Wai Po, always encouraged her to fake that’s she’s white — something presumably impossible for Wai Po, since she speaks in nothing but proverbs and all caps (or rather, “like Chinese characters in Jerry Lewis movies”). But once people find out Allie is multiracial, game over! She’s referred to as… “China-Blackie.” Hilarious!
Non-PC though that is, Allie makes mistakes with all that confusing race stuff, too. Take this scene, for instance:
“Dad…If a man named Vice Versa shows up at the restaurant or your house, don’t open the door.”
“Who is Vice Versa and why would he show up?” …
“He’s just some mean-nasty black guy that’s been giving me trouble.”
“What kind of trouble has he given you?” Frank’s voice went up in a way that Allie had never heard before.
… “I haven’t quite met him yet — ”
“Then how do you know he’s a black guy?”
“Come on, Dad! The guy’s name is Vice Versa! Can you imagine a white guy named Vice Versa?”
“Allie, I have raised you better than that! Do not assume that just because his name is original he is a black man.”
And Allie feels really bad when she says or thinks things that might be construed as racist:
Jorge looked out the window and Allie followed his gaze. A Hispanic guy, who looked somewhat like Jorge but bigger, was waving his arms, pointing to a rolled-down garage door…Jorge handed several bills to his bigger twin. “My cousin!” he said to Allie, and threw an arm up around the man’s shoulder.
“Oh!” Allie said. She was relieved to know that she had been right about their looking alike, that she hadn’t just thought all Mexicans looked the same.
That about sums up The Wonder Bread Summer‘s satire and shock value: most of it is race-based. The book couldn’t just open with a naked dude flashing himself to innocent Allie. No, it opened by zeroing in on the fact that Allie’s drug-dealer boss’s [you know] was “black as espresso, blacker than his face, and as thick as a pair of tube socks rolled up.” Etc., etc., etc. Honestly, the book’s explicit sexual content didn’t bother me in the least. What did bother me was the loaded, stereotypical way those scenes were often written.
It could’ve been outrageous and entertaining on the plot alone, a silly and fun summer read. But sorry, hipster racism really isn’t my idea of literary cotton candy.
The Wonder Bread Summer was released in May 2013 by Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins. This book is on tour right now, so check out what other bloggers are saying about it (I am definitely in the minority on this one).
I read it as a(n): ARC