Sonny Bravo gets laid, learns to drive a stick and confronts racism in The Flowers
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." And 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 "Okie" stepdad. 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 street lamps, because of wino stink, turned the broken glass in the alleys and against the curbs and doorways of out-of-business stores 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 stepdad, 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 rather to watch "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.
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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 thumb-sucker, 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 stepfather, 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 he doesn't understand it. He wants to take the subject of his affections, Nica, driving around Hollywood and to the ocean in one of Pink's old Bel Aires. He dreams they'll go to Paris.
Gilb 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 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.
The riotous climax, following a Rodney King-style beating, is part of a longer tease that seems to promise a full-frontal cliché but, like a first lap dance, never quite delivers all. In the end, Gilb suggests that racial harmony is a dream, even as he embraces everyone's favorite platitude: Love conquers all.
The Flowers by Dagoberto Gilb; Grove Press. Hardcover, 250 pages, $24.