Paulie Silva lives on an isolated Big Island mountainside, where his disabled father raises roosters and the family loves the rural beauty of the setting. The roosters are proud, strutting little fowl, and Paulie is filled with admiration for the way his father cares for them. They are more than farm animals, less than pets.
Just down the hill, however, things aren’t so idyllic. Modern society and unemployment are nibbling away at traditional lifestyles, offering not just access to a wider world through classrooms and the Internet, but also a host of social horrors like violence and drug abuse.
And cockfighting. Although Paulie knows his father’s roosters are being raised for the cockpit, it’s all academic until he actually sees his first cockfight. In just a few moments of blood and feathers, Paulie’s world is altered, caught between cultural tradition and modern sensitivities.
"Young adult" or middle-school novels often have their heroes face such dilemmas. The good ones, like "Gaff," are elegantly, leanly written, not wasting pages of rhetorical fat or useless description. That’s not why the young readers are here. The spareness of the prose allows readers to project themselves within the narrative.
"Gaff" does so brilliantly. Author Correa gets out of the way of the story, allowing just enough details to paint the outlines so young readers can fill in the colors. She’s also most excellent at bits of dialogue and observational snippets that move the book’s themes along without broadcasting them. In other words, a page-turner.
"Gaff" definitely has themes, and they’re familiar to anybody who muddled through adolescence or who’s been on the edge of leaving the family nest for a wider circle.
They include wondering why the world is as it is, the continuing mystery of the opposite sex, the intellectual pull of school and the emotional tug of peer pressure. Correa handles it all, rather slyly too.
A couple of problems. Any book set in Hawaii, intended for a wider audience, wrestles with pidgin. Putting pidgin English in print is a sticky business; you’re dealing not just with sentence structure, but with trying to get across the nuances of pronunciation, which matter because pidgin is a spoken argot with a unique literary signature that simply feels wrong when dropped in amongst clear English. Correa does a bit too much of that here.
Also, "Gaff" quite cleverly sets up perilous paths for Paulie that, in the end, don’t quite pan out emotionally for the reader. The solution to Paulie’s problem comes out of the blue, like lightning on a clear day. Too simple, too neat, too godlike. How un-novellike.
On the other hand, Correa’s also hinting that things are never quite as bad as they seem. Just try telling any adolescent that and see whether they believe you.