Oreo by Fran Ross. Completely and delightfully meshuganah! Remember how excited I was about the beginning? How I wondered if it could possibly keep up for an entire novel? Or would it get old fast? The hilarity remains high throughout and not once does it get old or irritating. In fact, it is continually surprising.
Christine Clark, the offspring of a black mother and Jewish father, is raised by her black grandparents because her father abandoned the family after her brother was born and her mother is constantly traveling. Oreo is Christine’s nickname. It was supposed to be “oriole” but no one could understand her grandmother’s deep and peculiar southern accent and they all thought she said “Oreo.” Of course the name has a double meaning. It is a cookie, but it is also an insult for people who appear to be black but act white. Christine may be called Oreo but an oreo she is not.
What she is is a whip smart, linguistically talented, self-confident, take charge and take no crap young woman. The story is a kind of coming of age quest feminist satire. Christine is Theseus gone in search of her father who has left her clues. She overcomes obstacles, performs deeds, faces dangers, and makes her way through the labyrinth that is the New York City subway system. She finds her father but the story’s end is not one in which our heroine is richly rewarded as Theseus was. This is not that kind of story. Stereotypes and expectations must be subverted, and are.
A big part of the pleasure of this book is the language itself. I am going to have to find a way to work I had “more fun than a tornado in a trailer park” into a conversation some time. It is filled with Yiddish and black vernacular and a made up language and standard English and southern something or other, and puns and puzzles and jokes and word play of all sorts:
As Oreo walked up the street, she saw a pig run squealing out of a doorway, a bacon’s dozen of pursuers pork-barreling after it.
Oreo is sadly Ross’s only novel. It was first published in 1974 to very little notice. Ross worked as a freelance editor and writer, wrote articles for magazines, worked as a proofreader and copyeditor for a couple big publishers and was part owner of a mail order educational supply company. In 1977 she moved to Los Angeles to work as a comedy writer for The Richard Pryor Show. The show did not last long and Ross returned to New York. She died of cancer in 1985 at the age of fifty.
I can understand why Oreo did not get much attention in 1974. It was far ahead of its time and the places that did review it were not sure what to make of it. Thank goodness for independent publishers, because time has finally caught up with the book and New Directions has done us all a service in reprinting it.
I haven’t really told you all that much about the book, but I am not certain I could really do it justice even if I went on and on about it. It is one of those books you have to experience for yourself. Don’t expect realist fiction and well-rounded characters. Don’t expect a linear plot, heck don’t expect much plot at all. Do expect much absurdity, mayhem, and lampooning of everyone and everything. Oh, and expect to giggle, chuckle, guffaw, and laugh out loud.