USING WHAT YOU GOT

 

Karen E Quinones Miller
Simon & Schuster / 256 pages
ISBN 0-7432-4614-4
Fiction with a Hint of Reality

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      Perhaps it’s Karen Quinones Miller solid background as a journalist that makes her such a talented, yet controversial fiction writer. For Quinones-Miller, who worked as a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer before making the often perfidious leap from newshound to celebrated novelist a few years ago, writing books about unpleasant topics or equally despicable people, seem to evoke her best literary talents.

Her last book, I’m Telling, explored the taboo topic and the “let’s ignore it and it will go away,” issue of childhood sexual abuse in a family. Her latest book, Using What You Got, explores the all too familiar topic about a desperate woman in search of a man, but with a slightly different spin. Tiara Bynum is a pouty, spoiled Prima Donna and daddy’s girl. Pretty by some standards and utterly pretentious by most, Tiara is an 18-year-old wanna be diva, who, to put it bluntly, will get on your nerves from the very beginning of the book. As it turns out, her snotty attitude and elitist air was developed and honed by her dimwitted daddy-Reggie. A former numbers runner, who is supposedly reformed and now gainfully employed as a garbage man, daddy simply worships his two daughters-Tiara and her baby sister Jo-Jo. He dumped his wife long ago. It’s not uncommon for papa Bynum to blow the rent or monthly light bill money in order to buy an expensive case of Fashion Fair cosmetics or a Louis Vuitton purse for his daughters-especially Tiara. Early on, readers are led to believe that daddy is actively saving up his trash hauler paycheck in order to move his girls from the New York City projects to a brownstone in ‘burbs. Shallow and painfully naive’ in an obnoxious sort of way, Tiara’s primary goal in life is to meet and marry a rich man. Supposedly, she has some intention of going to law school, but readers quickly get the sense that meeting a sugar daddy is her only true aspiration. She does in fact meet men-plenty of men. But it is only one---Lionel--- who meets and exceeds all of her expectations---but as we later learn-the brotha’ has some deep and very dark secrets that threaten to destroy her idyllic world.

     

For Quinones-Miller, Using What You Got is remotely similar to her freshmen novel a few years ago, entitled, Satin Doll. In the book she also introduced readers to a woman---Regina Harris---with an all too-familiar hard luck story of woe and despair---broke, jobless, and depressed and desperate to meet a man to take of her needs both inside and outside of the bedroom. She eventually meets a man who is from a ritzy, albeit-snooty upper-class family that readily abhors her “ghetto fabulous” ways. In both books, only a modicum of sympathy or compassion is felt for the main characters. In Using What You Got, it’s Quinones-Miller’s raw and overly abundant dialogue between the characters that saves the novel from becoming yet just another story about some a woman who meets and falls in love with the wrong man.  In one scene, Tiara dismisses an interested suitor because he doesn’t meet her lofty expectations. The author writes, “Good, because my feet hurt,” Tiara grumbled, her mood darkened because of the conversation during the four-block walk. It was obvious to her that Rashad was jealous because she was going to be a lawyer and he was nothing but a cab driver, but she was damned if he was going to make her feel bad. Sh-t, if he had any sense he should be trying to hook up with her so he could have a lawyer for a wife. The boy obviously didn’t have the brains he was born with.” Throughout the book, readers will find similar “superior than thou” comments from Tiara---an immediate turnoff and readers will quickly surmise that whatever happens to her, in the end she gets what she deserves.

  

  Finally, Quinones-Miller's writing always seems to have a certain latent journalistic savviness to it. It's present in all three of her novels. Perhaps in her days as a print reporter she covered a story about childhood sexual abuse or interviewed a woman like Regina Harris and Tiara Bynum. It’s this hint of reality that makes a Karen Quinones-Miller book a compelling read.


Glenn Townes is an award-winning New Jersey-based journalist and frequent contributor to numerous national publications. Glenn was recently appointed to Professional Advisory Board at his alma mater, the University of Iowa School of Journalism for his outstanding contributions to the field.