The story of four teenagers on a road trip to pick up a vintage car turns into a pedal-to-the-metal crime thriller in Phillippe Diederich’s new young adult novel, Diamond Park.
This is the second YA book by Diederich, after the award-winning Playing With the Devil’s Fire. He has also published a novel for adults, Sofrito, and, under the pen name Danny Lopez, a series of detective novels set in Sarasota.
Diederich, the son of Haitian exiles, was born in the Dominican Republic and grew up in Mexico City. He has taught in the creative writing program at the University of South Florida and lives in Houston and Sarasota. (He contributed a story, “Jackknife,” to Tampa Bay Noir.)
The narrator of Diamond Park is 16-year-old Rafael Herrera, although everyone calls him Flaco. (The nickname means “Skinny.”) He lives in Houston with his hard-working mom, his Tio Félix and his aunt, Ana Flor, who is still deep in grief for her only child, Flaco’s cousin Carlos, who was killed in Afghanistan.
Like many teenagers, Flaco can’t wait to move on to adult life; he’s a talented artist, but college is a difficult goal for a kid from a family that barely scrapes by financially.
In the meantime, Flaco spends his spare time sitting in Carlos’ old Buick with his two best friends, smoking weed and spinning dreams.
Tiny is a sweet kid whose sunny disposition is offset by his constant worry about being deported — his family came over the border just a few years before. He is, Flaco says, “Like for real Mexican from Mexico. ... I’m Mexican but I’ve never been.”
If Tiny is the angel on one of Flaco’s shoulders, Magaña is the devil on the other, the kid who always has a scheme that’s thrilling but scary. As Diamond Park begins, he announces to Tiny and Flaco that they’re all skipping school the next day so he can go buy a car from his godfather.
Magaña’s father is in prison, but he’s told his son that the boy’s padrino, Rayo, has a 1959 Chevy Impala convertible he’ll sell for $1,000.
Flaco is skeptical: “Right away I figured it was bulls--t. A 1959 Impala is as badass as it gets, a one-off model. The most unique Chevy ever built. Car looks like a spaceship. It was the only year it came with the teardrop lights under the folded fins — and convertible?”
But he’s up for a road trip, whether the car is real or not. The next day, while he’s on the way to join Magaña and Tiny to ride the bus to the small town of Diamond Park, Flaco runs into his pretty neighbor Susi, whom he’s had a crush on forever. She wants to go along, so the four of them head for Diamond Park.
Rayo, it turns out, is “all muscles, has a tattoo on the front of his neck that runs around his shoulder like a spiderweb,” and isn’t all that thrilled to see Magaña. There are two other men with him, one of them, called Anaconda, even scarier than Rayo.
The car, Rayo tells them, is at a farm a few miles away, and his friend (the not-scary one) will drive them there in his VW Beetle. But there’s not room for all of them, so Susi ends up staying behind. Flaco objects, but Magaña says, “She’ll be fine. We’ll be right back.”
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The Impala is real, but by the time the boys get it to run and get back to Rayo’s house, one man is dead, another has vanished, and Susi is handcuffed and being led to a police cruiser.
She’s arrested, but they won’t leave her behind a second time. Before long, Flaco and Magaña are heading into Mexico, driving that Impala, rotten tires, steaming radiator and all, in search of the missing man.
Diederich builds the novel’s suspense skillfully, and he creates engaging characters — the dialogue among the three boys is especially effective, funny and often profane (in English and Spanish). For YA readers or adults, Diamond Park is worth the trip.
By Phillippe Diederich
Dutton, 275 pages, $17.99