Fran Ross’s novel Oreo is the most adventurous and original of the five books I’ve read for the Tournament of Books. Originally published in 1974, it never found much of an audience. Reissued last year, it feels entirely new.
Oreo is the story of Christine Schwartz, the daughter of a black mother and Jewish father.
Christine was no ordinary child. She was born with a caul, which her first lusty cries rent in eight. Aside from her precocity at mirror writing, she had her mother’s love of words, their nuance and cadence, their juice and pith, their variety and precision, their rock and wry. When told at an early age that she would one day have to seek out her father to learn the secret of her birth, she said, “I am going to find that motherfucker.” In her view, the last word was merely le mot juste.
Her nickname, Oreo, comes from a mishearing of the word Oriole, which came to her maternal grandmother in a dream.
Oreo’s story is a wacky updating of the story of Theseus. Like Theseus, Oreo goes on a quest to find an absent father. Her father left her a series of clues to the secret of her birth—as well as a “sword and sandals” her mother has hidden under a rock that Oreo needed to lift. But after remembering that the rock was a “tsedrayt place to put them,” her mother has her pry up a floor board to find a mezuzah and a pair of bed socks. Oreo follows the clues to New York, where she foils robbers and takes revenge on the cruel. She moves through the world with confidence, responding to every challenge with wit and resourcefulness. Oreo is never brought down by her circumstances. She adopts whatever attitude and linguistic code is needed for the moment.
The story, with its relationship to the Theseus myth, is clever enough, but what really sets this book apart is the way the story is told. Ross fills the narrative with all sorts of word play, ethnic gags, and crass jokes. I tend to be a little tone-deaf to humor in books, but I found Oreo funny. Sometimes it goes over-the-top in its outrageousness—an incest joke is tossed out matter-of-factly, “midgets” are shown eating dog biscuits, and I can’t even begin to explain how Oreo gets the better of a New York pimp in Ross’s version of the Cercyon story. There’s something so cheerful about the telling of these tales that it’s hard to get offended at them. I didn’t get the sense that Ross was trying to make fun of anyone. She riffs on stereotypes without making them into insults.
I think that riffing on stereotypes gets at the larger purpose of the book. Oreo, with her many identities, has power that gets her through the world. But it doesn’t feel like she’s meant to be a person who is “beyond race.” Instead, she embodies many races and many identities, each one distinct and part of who she is. These identities give her strength. Ignoring who she is and where she comes from would weaken her. And so, this kooky story becomes a celebration of all identities.