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Kids' Books: An immigrant tale for teens

The hero of Oscar Hijuelos' latest novel is Rico Fuentes, "the palest Cubano who ever existed on the planet.''

The sandy-haired 15-year-old (a great-grandfather was Irish) carries "get-jumped money,'' because in his 1960s Harlem neighborhood he attracts "both Latino and black takeoff artists who saw my white skin as a kind of flashing neon sign that said îRob me.' ''

Rico is the Dark Dude (Atheneum, $16.99, ages 13 and up) of the title, a phrase Hijuelos remembers hearing in his youth "which was intended to be ironic. It meant you were untrustworthy because of your skin color.''

A classic outsider, Rico doesn't fit in any where, not at school, where kids are getting high in the bathroom, and not even at home, where his Cuban immigrant mother -- "a hard case,'' he calls her -- criticizes him for acting like he's "above'' his parents because he speaks better English than Spanish.

"I wrote the kind of book I would have loved to read myself when I was that age,'' said Hijuelos, whose novels -- including the 1990 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love -- were instrumental in bringing wide exposure to the Latino immigrant experience in America. He'll be in Miami on Tuesday to talk about his first novel for teens, a story with many strands lifted from the author's own autobiography, including some scary brushes with drug users, a subplot that may alienate any parent reading over their teen's shoulder. Hijuelos hopes readers will be left with the anti-drug message.

"It's real. You have to show there's a lot of crazy stuff that just lands on kids. You hope that if they are lucky enough to survive whatever is their exposure to it, they'll learn, 'I never want to be in that situation again.' ''

Hijuelos' parents, who married in Jiguani, Cuba, emigrated to New York in 1943. Like Rico's family, they settled in upper Manhattan. In the years before Castro came to power, the family occasionally returned to Cuba.

On one of those trips, Hijuelos became seriously ill and had to spend months in the hospital upon his return. Rico, too, had a childhood shadowed by illness, which burdened his family with debt it could never quite erase, leaving his mother embittered.

Understandably, Rico reaches a point at which he can't take it anymore: A school shooting; a friend on drugs; his mother's constant harassment.

Rico persuades his addicted friend Jimmy to head to Wisconsin, where another friend is living on a farm while attending college. Rico brings the comic book scripts he's written about superheroes like "El Gato'' and "the Latin Dagger,'' hoping Jimmy, a talented artist, will draw the illustrations. He also packs a careworn copy of his favorite novel, Huckleberry Finn.

The Twain classic makes cameo appearances in several Hijuelos novels. (Delores is reading it in the bathtub in Mambo Kings). Hijuelos considers it a motif, "like a musical figure that occurs now and then in my work.

"It was one of the first novels I read that made me want to become a writer myself,'' he recalls. "My favorite scene is when Jim is talking about hitting his daughter because he thinks she's not paying attention and he realizes she's deaf.

"A writer would cut off his hand for a scene with that much power. I remember thinking, 'Wow.' It just spoke to my sense of compassion and my awakening idea about suffering in the world.''

In Dark Dude, Huck's journey sparks Rico's escape. In a beautifully rendered epiphany, he realizes his trip has also released Jimmy from his slavish devotion to heroin -- he has saved him. It's a powerful moment for both Rico and the reader.

He hopes to write a sequel -- Dark Dude Goes to Kollege.

"One of the things I'm interested in is giving kids who don't come from a place that has all the advantages an easy route to finding all this stuff that will make their lives better. I want to explore that,'' he said. "Anything that furthers the improvement of the collective mind of kids, I'm happy to contribute.''