Caidin Maddox is a rich white boy who goes to one of the best schools in Houston, Texas. Everyone there has to score above the ninety-fifth percentile in IQ. “Caidin hated football, but he did things like piss in the principal’s car and slash her tires, so people liked him and trusted his ideas.” He also enjoys doing drugs and picking on gay kids, especially Milo Hux who founded the school’s gay-straight alliance. Caidin is the anti-hero of John McManus’s short story “The Ninety-Fifth Percentile,” which was recently published in Harvard Review‘s issue 39. McManus takes a raw look at white privilege during a time of real historical crisis, a crisis that made clear and obvious the lines of class and color in America.
Caidin is the son of privilege. He has known the same Latina maid since infancy but doesn’t care to learn or speak to her in Spanish. He is used to taking his parents’ credit cards without request, and he fully expects to drive a hot car, coast through school, and attend an Ivy League university. He unapologetically barrels his way through life with no consideration to consequences. He uses drugs, takes advantage of his absent parents — his father is often busy and his mother is a state senator — and he totals his brother’s Porsche.
What is so compelling about Caidin is his secret — he’s struggling with his homosexuality — which is revealed very subtly in the first page. Caidin and his friends spy on the Latino immigrant student Juaco as he and Milo get into Juaco’s Chrysler LaBaron. “‘I’d ride a bike before I’d drive that,’ Caidin said, unable to stop staring at Juaco’s arms.”
The boys follow Juaco to Milo’s house and Caidin concludes that they must be in a relationship and that Milo must be hiding Juaco from the INS. He decides to report them, and a few days later, the PTA newsletter says that Juaco Ochoa Luna has been deported. This leaves the door open for Caidin to invite Milo to a water park where he pushes his head under water, pulls his swim shorts down, and humiliates him because of his sexuality in front of other kids. On the way home, to get a rise out of Milo, Caidin drives over 100 mph, which doesn’t bother Milo, who “wasn’t paying attention.” A few days later, Milo kills himself in a car accident.
The story’s tension is heightened through the setting. It is August 2005 and Hurricane Katrina has just hit Louisiana. Suddenly, Caidin’s school hosts refugees: “For first period the principal had called an assembly. Refugees were pouring into Houston, she said, and some would be at their school from now on. These weren’t people to be trifled with.” At lunch, some of the refugees hang out in the parking lot by their cars, and Caidin finds one standing next to a Cadillac. When the refugee asks Caidin if he wants to race, he says yes then changes his mind: “‘Forget it,’ he said, because these evacuees weren’t in the ninety-fifth percentile.”
The other kids at his school are blasé about the evacuees: “They can have our books,” says Caidin’s girlfriend Astrid, who is more interested in smoking bongs and dropping acid than she is in going to school or in current events. His mother, a state senator, is also dismissive. When Hurricane Rita makes its way toward Texas, his mother says their house “was sturdier than some Ninth Ward shack.” The next morning, though, his parents board up the windows and pack the car to leave.
All of Caidin’s friends from school evacuate with their families, too, and so would Caidin except that Juaco returns with the help of a rich guy who fell in love with him and got him a visa. Juaco brings back a lot of fears Caidin has worked so hard to cover up, and finally he is left hoping that Hurricane Rita will destroy Houston, so that he would have nothing left to fear.
The story explores issues of male sexuality, gender performance, and the tenuous lines of race and class. It does so deftly by giving us a look at the story we don’t know very well: what happened within the walls of white privilege during the tragedies of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Harvard Review‘s issue 39 is in stores now.