By Dagoberto Gilb
Grove. 250 pp. $24
For years, award-winning novelist Dagoberto Gilb said he was working on a novel about his mother. The book, he told an interviewer in 2001, was going to be based on his New Yorker essay, "I Knew She Was Beautiful." Anyone who's read this piece, which opens in a train depot in 1950s Los Angeles and ends decades later with a poignant hospital scene, can be forgiven for expecting Gilb's new novel, The Flowers, to be a kind of redemption story.
Mama Gilb, the essay revealed, was a looker who modeled clothes for department stores, married several times and largely neglected her only son. Over the years, she also developed a taste for alcohol; liver problems eventually sent her to the emergency room. It was then that Gilb discovered, after years of estrangement, that the strongest emotions he felt for her were pride, forgiveness and love. In his essay, Gilb recounts this history with restraint, but it was hard to imagine how a novelization of this material could avoid sentimentality.
His solution is to focus The Flowers on a time long before his hospital epiphany. The narrator, Sonny Bravo, is 15 and angry. Technically, he lives with his mother, Silvia, in a sparsely furnished apartment in Los Angeles. But mostly he lives alone: "My mom, if she wasn't at her job, was out on dates and whatever. And sometimes she'd get in so late I wouldn't be awake. That was better for me than when she was home," because temper and exhaustion could make the beauty yell.
Sonny's life improves, materially at least, when Silvia quits her job and marries Cloyd Longpre, a "hillbilly" who owns an apartment complex he's misnamed "Los Flores." (In Spanish, flowers are feminine, so the name should begin with "Las.") Marriage provides the Bravos with bedspreads, dining room furniture and, thanks to Cloyd's taxidermist son, hunting trophy décor. The price for these comforts, though, falls on Sonny. Cloyd, who is white, treats his Chicano stepson like a janitor, making him clean and maintain Los Flores for his keep. He claims to be teaching Sonny to be a man. What he's really teaching him is to live with bullying and fear.
When Sonny protests to his mother, she responds: "Don't make any trouble." There's not much pride or forgiveness in lines like that. Indeed, for most of the novel, Silvia Bravo is a distinctly unsympathetic character, a classic Bad Beauty who's too self-absorbed to care for her own son.
But The Flowers is no Mommy Dearest. Gilb, whose 1993 short story collection The Magic of Bloo d won a PEN/Hemingway Award and whose 2003 essay collection Gritos was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, has crafted a psychologically complex novel that captures both a young son's resentment and a mature man's understanding.
Sonny's anger and helplessness -- "I wanted to hit something. I wanted to steal something." -- take up the foreground of the story. He engages in a range of compensating rebellions: avoiding his home, smoking marijuana, fighting in the streets and dallying with two Latina neighbors. To throw Cloyd's stereotypes off balance, Sonny even begins to teach himself French.
Meanwhile, Silvia's marriage crumbles. Being a housewife bores her, and Cloyd's brutal manners and fondness for whiskey soon move her toward contempt. She begins sneaking out on dates, shrewdly setting up an avenue for escape for her and her son. This behavior isn't pretty, but Gilb's descriptions of it are awfully fun to read, and Silvia's wiliness demands a certain amount of respect. The apartments of Los Flores are filled with Latinas who are trapped and dominated by angry men. Most of these women can't even step outside their homes. Silvia may lie, she may cheat, but she's clearly the only woman who will slip safely out from under her husband's thumb.
"Your mom is lucky," one neighbor tells Sonny, after her own husband berates her into tears. "Some women are just born with looks." But it's Silvia's smarts and her attitude that make the bigger difference. "Bravo" means "fierce" in Spanish, and whatever her other faults, Silvia's fighting spirit earned my admiration.
Unlike Gilb's essay about his mother, The Flowers doesn't end with a deathbed realization. The action cuts off in the middle of a Los Angeles race riot, just before Sonny turns 16. If the point of Gilb's essay was reconciliation, the crux of his novel may be recognition: For better or worse, Sonny and mother are more alike than not. They are both fierce and deceptive. Sonny's narration is spiked with cunning omissions, and he, too, learns to defy fear in order to survive. At one point he and his mother quietly watch TV together while Cloyd and his buddy get drunk in another room. "Hey, my luv-ly wife!" Cloyd yells at Silvia through the wall. She doesn't flinch. "She was far away," Sonny thinks. "She was taking side streets, making turns that kept her going. She was scheming too. It's where I learned it." ·
Marcela Valdes, a contributing editor at Publishers Weekly, is currently at work on a book about Chile.