A Chicano Mythic Journey
The Flowers by Dagoberto Gilb
Review by Lisa Lenard-Cook
“Sherman Alexie meets Junot Diaz,” reads one of the many glowing blurbs for Dagoberto Gilb’s new novel, The Flowers. But “Kurt Vonnegut meets Philip Roth” may be a far more apt comparison. The Flowers reveals a writer at the height of his powers, at ease with characters both unique and archetypal, a plot that caroms like a heat-seeking missile, and thematic concerns from the many faces of love, racial prejudice and violence, and hope in spite of shattered dreams.
Gilb, the son of an illegal immigrant Mexican mother and Anglo father whose marriage ended before Gilb began kindergarten, was raised in East Los Angeles. He worked as a journeyman carpenter for many years in El Paso after graduating from U.C. Santa Barbara. His breakthrough collection of stories, The Magic of Blood, published by UNM Press in 1992, won rave reviews and numerous awards, making him a literary star.
While Gilb now teaches in the MFA program at the University of Texas-San Marcos (and, this spring, at Cal State-Fresno as well), he'll admit he's not a product of the MFA system, delineating the difference between “people who write out of experience, off the noisy streets and crappy jobs, the working class, and those who write out of the imagination alone, the writing class, who get into it as an academic decision like choosing philosophy or geology [so that] ‘creative writing’ [has become] a kind of genre fiction … like detective and crime and horror.”
Gilb says it’s “impossible to not write about what you did for a living.” “Fiction tells the truth,” he says, “better than reality because fiction works as mythic, dreamlike storytelling, and is not for the information stream.”
Gilb practices what he preaches in The Flowers, the mythic journey of teenaged Sonny Bravo. The novel begins just before Sonny moves to the curiously misnamed Los Flores Apartments after his remote but beautiful mother marries the building’s manager, Cloyd Longpre. When Cloyd puts Sonny to work helping with the building’s upkeep, Sonny—generous, curious and a believer in love despite everything he’s seen in his 15 years—is soon involved in the stories and lives of the building’s tenants.
While Nica steals Sonny’s heart, it’s Cindy—the lonely, sexy and, most of all, horny young wife of a never-at-home drug dealer—who steals his virginity.
Said tenants include Pink, who is “strange in so many ways it was hard to describe,” including “wiry hair … mostly white (with) orange and red in it … freckles you wanted to count, and … a river of a scar that cut from the side of his eyebrows, where it trickled down, winding down to his jaw.” To the consternation of Cloyd and his xenophobic tenant/friend, the highly muscled and still more highly strung Bud, Pink sells used cars from the curb in front of Los Flores and asks Sonny to be his lookout, although for what he never directly lets on. The racial tension this situation illustrates (Pink, it turns out, is an albino Black man) is but one of the many threads that run through the novel.
A second thread concerns Nica, a teenage girl from Mexico who doesn't speak English, whose sole task is to care for her baby half-brother. While Nica steals Sonny’s heart, it’s Cindy—the lonely, sexy and, most of all, horny young wife of a never-at-home drug dealer—who steals his virginity. Meanwhile, through it all, the mysterious Mr. Josep sits on a rickety chair, watching Sonny sweep the balconies and come and go between the two women’s apartments, periodically pronouncing unfathomable truisms about life and love that Sonny believes must hold secrets he can’t yet decipher.
Although Sonny can't drive, Pink gives him the keys to a car that ultimately serves as the vehicle for the novel’s climactic scene; a latter-day Day of the Locust that’s sure to set nerves a-clatter. Never one to take the easy way out in his fiction, Gilb offers his hero a final daring act of selflessness comprised partly of hope and dashed dreams, while readers are left to ponder the fate of a narrator they won’t soon forget.
Dagoberto Gilb will give a talk and book signing sponsored by Bookworks at UNM’s SUB Ballroom A on Wednesday, Feb. 27, at 7 p.m. For more information, call 344-8139.
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