Using a 15-or-so-year-old Mexican-American kid who smiles every time he says something in French as the vehicle to address black-white race relations isn’t the only clever turn in Dagoberto Gilb’s latest novel The Flowers. There’s also a black albino named Pink who passes in an apartment building where the landlord refuses to rent to “negroes.” The kid’s Mexican mother fools her redneck husband with out- of-the-can ethnic cooking.
Gilb’s novel is populated with an amazing variety of unpredictable characters, people who come dangerously close to being stereotypes but, because of certain quirks, stand as individuals. Their world centers on “Los Flores” the Los Angeles apartment building just off “the boulevard” where Sonny Bravo and his mother live with Sonny’s new “Oakie” step dad. The place is populated with Mexican families, an eastern European couple, an 18-year-old druggie with an absent boyfriend and a racist construction worker and his wife. Then there’s Pink, who runs a used car business right off the street. The neighborhood, where the “dim yellow light from the streetlamps, because of wino stink, turned the broken glass in the alleys and against the curbs and doorways of out-of-business store into glowing, petrified chunks of piss” is just as eclectic with a flop-house motel down the block, a burrito-and-burger stand and a six-lane bowling alley with a little kitchen where Sonny likes to eat.
Sonny’s an all-American boy. He likes pizza and titty magazines, hates his step dad, loves the girl next door and loses his virginity to the one upstairs. His school buddies are twin nerds. Sonny’s also a petty thief who likes to break into houses, not so much to steal things, but for “watching how the people lived, imagining how it would be in their house.” Sonny’s first run in with the police comes when he’s harassed by a cop who stops to blow “a fat old pedo.” Sonny laughs. Big mistake.
Sonny’s a bit detached from the racial tension around him. His mind’s on other things. He doesn’t want to steal but can’t help himself. He has a tendency to be violent, even when the odds are against him. He carries around a large stone to ward off “perverts.” Part weapon, part security blanket, the rock becomes his closest ally, even as he’s accepted and cared for by his neighborhood family. When he finally confronts the supposed pervert, he’s uncertain how to respond.
Gilb gets a thematic twofer out of this setup, a chance to explore two subjects common to the greatest American novels: coming-of-age and race. While Sonny is no thumbsucker, he’s innocent enough to be oblivious to the meaning of what goes on around him even as he takes it all in. He hears his step father, Cloyd Longpre, tell someone on the phone ”I love to eat them tacos and now I even got myself married to a pretty little Mexican gal.” He feels the tension when two young blacks come into the bowling alley to eat “Mexican” hamburgers but doesn’t understand where it comes from. He wants to take Nica, the subject of his affections, driving around Hollywood and to the ocean in one of Pink’s old Bel Aires. He dreams they’ll go to Paris.
Gilb, the author whose short story collection Woodcuts of Women has earned comparisons to Raymond Carver’s work, is a master of phrase and dialect. Here, he exploits three languages, making them work both directly and symbolically. Sonny, fluent in English, doesn’t like Spanish and begins teaching himself French. His sweetheart Nica doesn’t know much English. His buddies, Joe and Mike, go easily between Spanish and English, creating a hybrid all its own. Words, often verbs, go missing in a kind of plain-speak shorthand. When Sonny asks the twins why the building is “Los Flores” rather than “Las Flores,” they suggest family and anti-family symbols. “What your daddy the Cloyd has up there just means the vato’s a dumbass,” explains Joe. “Or somebody’s who’s a relative, who has like a maid or a gardener he could ask…This is probably why real Mexicans—you know, mexicanos—think we’re such pochos up here.”
Sonny’s coming-of-age progresses through classic experiences: learning to drive and losing virginity. Gilb puts an original spin on these mileposts by framing them in terms of need and courage. Sonny learns to accept his physical desire for the mota smoking Gina. And when explosive circumstances require it, he learns to work the clutch just in time.
Gilb’s riotous climax, following a Rodney King styled beating, is part of a longer tease that seems to promise more than it delivers. In the end Gilb suggests that racial harmony is a dream even as he embraces everyone’s favorite platitude: love conquers all. –Cabbage Rabbit