Friday, September 3, 2010

The Prince of Central Park

Evan H. Rhodes
Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1975
ISBN: 698-10643-1

Growing up in the late 1970s, I came across a made-for-TV movie entitled The Prince of Central Park. It was not something I consciously set out to watch. Rather, in retrospect, I suspect that I saw it only because my parents happened to have the television on at the time it aired. Years later, I am only able to recall bits and pieces of the movie (I did not, for example, realize that Brooke Shields had a role in it). Nevertheless, the movie had a profound effect on me, and, upon discovering that it was based on a novel, I visited the public library the following morning to check out a copy. More than thirty years have passed since I first read Evan H. Rhodes novel, and yet I have never forgotten it. Indeed, I count my experience reading it among the milestones of my youth. To the best of my knowledge, the book is no longer in print. Thus, when I came across a copy while browsing in a used bookstore, I knew I had to buy it and reread it.

I did not do so without some degree of trepidation. Revisiting an aspect of your childhood, particularly one about which you have fond memories, is a risky proposition, as doing so often leads to the realization that, as the novelist Thomas Wolfe put it, you can’t go home again. Still, given my interest in reader response theory, the prospect of reading a novel that influenced me so strongly as a child through the eyes of my older self proved too tempting. Happily, I can report that I was not disappointed. I found Rhodes’s writing highly engaging, and was once again moved by the story, albeit for different reasons.

The Prince of Central Park is best characterized as a Bildungsroman. Neglected by the foster mother who took him in so that she would have an extra-pair of hands to help around the apartment, and disenchanted with the drugs, crime, and prostitution that riddle his New York City neighborhood, eleven-year-old Jay-jay runs away from home. With nowhere to go, he seeks refuge in a remote part of Central Park, where he takes up residency in a magnificent old oak tree. Initially, Jay-jay, the self-proclaimed “Prince of Central Park”, is delighted with his newfound freedom. Released from his negative relationships with others, he spends his days happily exploring the various corners of his new domain. As time passes, however, and as he is forced to fend for himself, Jay-jay comes to appreciate the challenges involved in making one’s way in a world that, if not cold, is at least indifferent to the plight of the individual. Likewise, he learns that there are things to be gained from entering into relationships with others. Pursued by a menacing figure from his past, and caught between two worlds—one natural, the other man-made--Jay-jay must decide in which he wishes to reside.

Evan Rhodes, who passed away earlier this year after suffering a stroke at the age of 81, was a talented writer, and the world he constructs in The Prince of Central Park is richly detailed. While the degree of introspection Jay-jay exhibits occasionally makes it difficult to accept him as an eleven-year-old boy, Rhodes imbues the character with a voice and spirit that call to mind the wonder with which adolescents often view the world. Cut in the mold of Huckleberry Finn, Jay-jay is a character readers care about. Though the novel was written thirty-five years ago, it does not fall victim to outdated language or expressions, a problem that often plagues young adult literature, particularly that which strives to be current. If anything, the book remains quite relevant.

Though I did not expect it to be the case, the themes and issues Rhodes explores in The Prince of Central Park resonated with me much as they did when I first read the book. If, after reading the novel as a child, I longed to exchange the strictures that governed my life at home and in school for the freedom that I assumed awaited me in the larger world, this was no less true of my experience reading the book as an adult. The difference, I suppose, has to do with the degree of credence I place in my ability to do so. In that sense, the book lost some of the magic it once held for me, not through any fault of the author, mind you, but rather as a result of the experiences I've acquired over the course of a lifetime. As an adult, I recognize that unimpeded freedom is an illusion, and that struggle is inevitable. On some level, I suspect that much of the pleasure I find in reading young adult literature has to do with the fact that I am able to walk alongside characters that exhibit a sense of idealism I would like to embrace as a world-weary adult.


Anonymous said...

I remember this made-for-tv movie too! It was part of the ABC After School Special program, if I am not mistaken. And wasn't there a bag lady he befriends? Now I might be confusing two things. I didn't realize it was based on a book - I'll check it out.

Antony Blake said...

I too saw the prince of central park and it stayed with me all my life. In fact when I first went to New York all I could do was wander around parts of central park wondering where his tree house could be. Its good to know now finally about the book though don't know if I'll find a copy here in n.z. Also the 1977 movie is available on you tube and Im still to see the update

Marc Vahanian said...

I am sorry to hear that Evan Rhodes passed away. I played the role of "Elmo" the mugger in the TV film "The Prince of Central Park"
I just come across the letter Evan wrote to me all those years ago - after he saw the film and was hoping to contact him.
His note was very generous, and the experience of working with Ruth Gordon is one of my most treasured memories. Rest in peace Evan, and thank you for you fine work and kindness. Marc Vahanian