cover image CHANGO'S FIRE


Ernesto Quinonez, . . HarperCollins/Rayo, $23.95 (276pp) ISBN 978-0-06-056459-9

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CHANGO'S FIRE Ernesto Quiñonez . HarperCollins/Rayo , $23.95 (288p) ISBN 0-06-056459-8

With the money he makes burning down houses as part of an insurance scam, Julio Santana, 29, a reluctant professional arsonist in Spanish Harlem, strives to make a better life for himself and his parents in this heart-on-its-sleeve novel of urban Latino life by Quiñonez, author of the critically acclaimed Bodega Dreams (2000). Despite his ambitions to make good—he's also in night school and working an above-board demolition job—Julio is wary of the gradual gentrification of his beloved neighborhood, which takes a personal turn when white girl Helen moves in downstairs. Her swings from condescension to belligerence are rather jarring (and not entirely credible), but Julio falls for her and embarks on a doomed relationship. Meanwhile, his old friend Maritza is running a church on the ground floor of his building, which she uses as a front for anti-AIDS crusading and shady immigration dealings. Erratic plotting jolts the reader from one neighborhood drama to the next, as Julio wrestles with questions of identity and ethics. But when he's blackmailed by his boss into doing one last arson job, a plot twist lets him (and Quiñonez) take the easy way out. Quiñonez has a comfortable familiarity with his turf and the catchy Spanglish most of his characters speak, but he tackles too much in this sometimes preachy, sketchy novel. Agent, Gloria Loomis. 10-city author tour. (Oct.)