If you’re looking for urban fiction, you might want to give Jason Reynolds’s When I Was The Greatest a shot. Set in Bed Stuy, New York, this is the story of Ari, a good guy who is just trying to pull it all together and keep afloat in a neighborhood which isn’t always the easiest, the fairest, or the safest place to be.
But this isn’t really a story about feeling sorry for Ari. Ari is a pretty sweet guy — he absolutely adores his mother and his little sister Jazz. His dad, who is not living with them, has made a lot of mistakes in his life, but Ari understands the whys and hows of those mistakes and accepts his father despite them. Dad comes around quite a bit, so he’s not an entirely absent father.
Then there are Noodles and Needles. Not their real names, of course. They’re Ari’s neighbors, brothers, who are about as divergent in personality from one another, and from Ari, as possible. Noodles is older, and he’s probably Ari’s best friend. But he’s a troublemaker. Noodles engages in activities he shouldn’t and he does so without a whole lot of remorse. He’ll steal and he’ll act out and it’s not a big deal to him.
Needles gets his nickname from the needles he uses to knit. He learns how to knit from Ari’s mother, who decided to show Needles how to do it because her background in working with mentally ill taught her that sometimes having a means of refocusing attention can help a person with an illness.
Needles has tourette syndrome, and he regularly breaks out into tics. The knitting, as they all discover, is a means of helping calm Needles down during a tic. He loves the activity, as it keeps both his mind and his hands busy. Ari thinks it’s kind of neat that Needles is so taken with it, but Noodles is far less into it — it makes his brother look even weaker than he already is.
Reynolds’s novel is a character-driven one, as the bulk of the action in this story is far less important than the development of the boys. We learn pretty early on that Noodles acts out, and Ari suspects there’s a lot more going on within him as to why he chooses to behave the way he does. As we get to know the characters better after the big incident — which I’ll get to in a minute — we discover than Noodles’s behavior is related to the resentment he has toward Needles’s illness. Noodles believes that his brother’s tics are the reason that their father left them, and even though he loves Needles, he can’t help but associate his father’s absence with him. Of course, there is a lot more to it than that, but knowing Noodles’s world view, his beliefs and suspicions ring true and honest. He’s a teen in a rough part of town with no father and a brother who he loves and wants to love more, but he can’t make sense of the way all of the cards have fallen in his life.
What Ari wants to do is get all three of them into one of the biggest area parties for just one night. That party, which will be brimming with pretty girls, booze, and good beats, should help loosen them all up. And of course, it’ll make them look cool, since they’re all under 18. The bulk of the plot of When I Was The Greatest revolves around Ari, Noodles, and Needles getting new hair cuts and styles and flashier clothes in order to fit in to this party. But when they get to the party and Ari’s put into a corner he doesn’t know how to escape from, he fears that his reputation will forever be tainted. Except that’s not really the thing he has to be worried about.
Needles is in trouble. And Noodles will be in trouble, too.
How the three boys untangle themselves from the party and the fight that broke out is what changes their relationships with one another and for Ari, it changes his relationship with his father.
The setting in this story is rich, but what I think I appreciated about it the most was that while this was urban and while it indeed featured the elements you’d come to “expect” in an urban novel — violence, drinking and drugs, gangs, and so forth — that’s not at all what the book was about. This was a book featuring black teens who are just that: teens. They’re navigating relationships with one another and they’re figuring out their own selves in the world they’re a part of. Things aren’t perfect, but the story is never focused on that imperfection. It’s on the sidelines. The focus is instead on the characters. Reynolds does an excellent job of making Ari’s voice authentic and relatable. There are good adults in this book, too, and what makes some of them such good adults is that they’ve all made mistakes and not only do they own up to them, but they talk about how much they’ve learned from their past choices. Beyond Ari’s mother — who works two jobs to make ends meet — and Ari’s father — who does sketchy stuff in order to make a living — there is Ari’s boxing coach who becomes an incredible mentor for Ari not just in terms of the sport, but on a much grander scale.
When I Was The Greatest is a bit of a slower read, though, because it is more focused on character than it is on plot. Perhaps a means of describing this book would be to call it literary urban fiction. This book should have good appeal to teen readers, and in conjunction, there’s a lot that can be talked about. There is great service done even in the packaging of this book. The knitted gun on the cover is appealing and raises questions of what role it could have in the story (there’s not a knitted gun, but there is knitting and there is a gun incident that stands as the moment when Ari and his father really connect).
Readers who love Coe Booth’s work will find Reynolds’s novel to be a really good read alike. As long as language isn’t an issue — because one of the characters suffers from tics — this book would be okay to hand to younger teen readers eager for edgier realistic fiction.
When I Was The Greatest is available now. Review copy picked up from my library.