At the opening of The Color Midnight Made, Andrew Winer's moving and funny first novel, 10-year-old Conrad Clay is diagnosed as colorblind by his school doctor. The news distresses our young hero, yet in one sense it is his greatest asset. As one of the few white students at Jack London Primary School in a hardscrabble corner of Alameda, California, Conrad has no trouble blending in with his African-American peers, such as his best friend, Loop.
"Loop said I musta been black in a past life," Conrad says, "so it was cool I was hangin' wid the bruthas in this one, since I had prior experience and did not be coming at it on the honky-ass tip."
But Conrad faces difficulties that go far beyond imperfect vision. His father loses his shipbuilding job at the Alameda Naval Base, his parents' marriage is crumbling, his beloved grandmother is dying, and his family is facing eviction from their home. Even Loop, drawn to an older boy, seems to be turning against him.
Thus everyday life becomes a tremendous challenge for Conrad, and his attempts to negotiate his troubled world are depicted in scenes by turns hysterical and heart-rending. Luckily, when things look darkest and loneliest, a few allies emerge. B.L.T., an ostracized overweight classmate, turns out to be an inspiration in skateboarding, Conrad's favorite pastime. And Conrad is bolstered by the gritty wisdom of Loop's brother Midnight, a blind oracular figure who makes up for his inability to see by internally supplying color for everything, from people and trees to his own emotions.
Winer's ear for slang is pitch perfect, and his warm comic way with dialogue is a delight. Here is Bobby, the boyfriend of Loop's mother, chastising a friend for being too romantically aggressive with a woman: "You got to slow your roll, bro . . . you got no shame to your game." Conrad's use of street diction in sharing his thoughts and emotions is striking, but Winer never gets carried away with his own poeticism. The narrative remains tight throughout, with nary a wasted word.
Race relations, the destructive effects of working class job flight on family structure, and the persistence of certain communities even in the worst of circumstances are some of the serious themes this novel takes on. But most importantly, it is impossible not to be drawn into Conrad's plight, and readers will root for him to somehow find a way to emerge intact from his brutal environment. Conrad's circumstances may break a few hearts, but his resilience, charm and brio will undoubtedly win them over in the end.
Mark Tarallo, a journalist based in Washington, D.C., is at work on his first novel.