Dalton Conley's moving and often hilarious memoir of his New York City boyhood sets out to explain how and why his growing up was not that of "your typical middle-class white male." His artist parents had no money, so the family wound up living in a mostly black and Latino public housing project on Avenue D. There, Conley's status was turned on its head: As a white child, he was the minority longing for acceptance, the one distanced from his own culture by the non-white majority.He puts that distance to good use. "I've studied whiteness the way I would a foreign language," Conley writes. "I know the subtleties of its idioms, its vernacular, words and phrases to which the native speaker has never given a second thought."
In another writer's hands, a book about a childhood that was "like a social science experiment" could easily become boring or didactic. But Conley's talents as a storyteller make Honky an extraordinary page-turner. From his early attempts to secure a black sibling, to his anguished double life as a student in mostly white schools (though poor, his parents still knew how to work the system), the narrative moves at a subway express-car pace. His refusal to turn away from the injuries of race and class--even the ones that he inflicts--make Honky well worth reading. Barbara Solow is the managing editor of The Independent Weekly.