The Short Version: Christine Schwartz (nicknamed Oreo) is born in Philadelphia to a Jewish father and an African-American mother. Her father left when she was only a few years old and when she comes of age, her mother sends her off to find him, beginning a hilarious journey to New York armed with her wit, charm, and some bad-ass martial arts.
The Review: Fran Ross is one of those authors who, without the attentions of a savvy publisher like New Directions, might’ve faded into obscurity. Oreo was first published in 1974 and dropped pretty quickly into obscurity – but its recent republishing proves that not all lost books were meant to be that way… or, perhaps, that some things can truly be ahead of their time.
Because Oreo doesn’t feel particularly like it’s a book of the 1970s. It doesn’t feel like a book of any time, present or past, really. It is a story out-of-time, a story of any time – not unlike the mythology it loosely plays with ‘updating’ (and also parodying). Ross is a fantastically witty writer, whose dexterity with / joy of language wouldn’t be out of place in the writers rooms of some of our best comedies today (Arrested Development, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Key & Peele, Inside Amy Schumer, and so on). The brief biographical information provided by the fore-and-afterwords reveal that she was to be a part of the writer’s room for the short-lived Richard Pryor Show (alongside comedy greats like Robin Williams and Sandra Bernard), but the show was cancelled all too soon and while she returned to writing freelance, she never had the cultural breakthrough that, frankly, this book proves she deserved.
From the very first, we are laughing. The book is split into a handful of larger sections with smaller, bolded sub-moments within. These moments often last just a few paragraphs, perhaps a few pages, and often have a sketch-like quality to them. Take the first two: “The bad news” and “The bad news, cont.”, which relays to two disapproving grandparents (Oreo’s, technically not her grandparents yet as her parents have yet to actually conceive her) the impending mixed marriage of Helen Clark & Samuel Schwartz. Samuel’s mother “let out a great geshrei and dropped dead of a racist/my-son-the-bum coronary” and Helen’s father “managed to croak one anti-Semitic “Goldberg!” before he turned to stone, as it were, in his straight-backed chair, his body a rigid half swastika, discounting, of course, hands, head, and feet.” It’s worth noting that Clark includes a line drawing of said half-swastika, the first of many delightful visual interruptions to the text.
Something about her storytellers voice, the way that she (not unlike the myth-tellers of old) makes herself plainly a part of the story while also, simultaneously, remaining on the sidelines, is a joy from first to last. Open the book to any random page and that voice is so crystal clear: wickedly funny, brazenly honest, and full of good heart. The satire is less intense than something like Paul Beatty’s The Sellout but that’s because I don’t see Ross as attempting to do anything more than entertain (whereas Beatty has, to my mind, a stronger goal of forcing the reader to consider the society in which they live and do something about it). Don’t get me wrong, there are lessons to be learned here – but Oreo walks, like Theseus before her, through so many moments essentially unscathed that you could be forgiven for believing her to be superhuman. Even a scene where an angry pimp kidnaps her and threatens her with rape by a tremendously-well-endowed animal of a man – a moment that, in the hands of a modern writer, might’ve led to something far more harrowing – is not so much played for laughs as it is given a sharply raised eyebrow and a knowing smirk. These things are taken seriously, but Ross makes the reader realize that you can take things seriously while also having fun and being absurd.
I must admit, I didn’t read the back-cover copy and so when the novel reached its conclusion and Ross, in an epilogue called “A Note for Speedreaders, Nonclassicists, Etc.”, delivers a speedy look at the myth of Theseus before revealing how the characters of this novel matched up with that tale, I was delighted. The discovery, one that should’ve been apparent but was made all the more exciting for its belatedness, put the picaresque romp in perspective for me and made me like the book even more than I already did. Suddenly Oreo, standing on a street corner in her sandals with her mezuzah hanging about her neck, leapt into mythic status – something she’d already achieved over the course of the novel, but now she was there, like an image out of the classical pantheon. Her adventures are easily broken down into small tales, easily shared with others outside of the context of the entire saga. If there was any justice in the world, we will add Oreo to our modern pantheon, using her as an analogy: “Well, as Oreo tricked the lecherous doctor…” or “Like Oreo and the dead pig….”
Rating: 5 out of 5. I’m a sucker for wordplay and smart, sassy authors – and Fran Ross is up there with the best of them. I think I could read this book again and find another entire set of moments to focus on and puzzle out, in the best way. Yes, it’s a fun look at Philadelphia and New York in the 70s and, yes, it’s got a satirical bent about race and mixed-race marriages and Judaism… but, more than that (or, perhaps, less than, in the sense that if you reduce it down to its barest parts), it is a delightful romp, a parody but also an update of classical mythology. Long live the myth of Oreo, a hero for us all.