Book Review by Daniel Olivas
[This review first appeared in the El Paso Times]
Dagoberto Gilb's new novel, The Flowers (Grove Press, $24 hardcover), is a ruthlessly potent portrait of urban distress as seen through the eyes of a young man.
The story's focus is Sonny Bravo, a precocious 15-year-old living with his mother and stepfather in an unidentified large city suspiciously suggestive of Los Angeles.
The first sentence lets us into Sonny's fractured world as he recounts breaking into homes: "Not that many years ago I would go to a house in the neighborhood, not always someone's I knew, one I'd never been inside of, where I'd only have to maybe hop a fence, nothing complicated, and from the backyard I'd crawl through an open window."
But Sonny was not a burglar in the usual sense. Rather, he broke into these homes principally to see "how the people lived, imagining how it would be in their house." He wished his life was as orderly and "normal" as those displayed in framed pictures in these homes: "Husbands in suits and wives with necklaces and old grandparents from the other times way before."
Sonny is now forced to live under the authoritarian rule of his new stepfather, Cloyd Longpre, who manages the apartment complex they live in known as "Los Flores" (Cloyd intended to name it "The Flowers" in Spanish but erroneously used the masculine pronoun "Los" instead of the feminine "Las"). Cloyd is a churlish, gun-owning Okie, but he's also a ticket to financial stability for Sonny's beautiful mother, Silvia. Sonny feels nothing but anger for his domineering stepfather and puzzlement over his mother's decision to marry him.
Sonny must earn his keep, so he is assigned chores such as sweeping the apartment's sidewalks, cleaning window screens and taking out the trash. During his duties, Sonny meets his neighbors and, before long, becomes entangled in their complicated lives.
Sonny is seduced by Cindy, a sexy 18-year-old drug user who is often left alone by Tino, her dangerous husband. Cindy is bored and carelessly uses Sonny almost as a plaything as she shapes him into a lover to her liking. Though at first captivated by the attention and sexual education, Sonny eventually sees Cindy for the troubled person that she is and becomes repulsed.
In direct contrast to Cindy is Nica, a Spanish-speaking Mexican girl who is forced to stay at home all day to care for her infant half brother while her parents work. While Sonny's interactions with Cindy are mired in alcohol, drugs and unloving sex, his budding romance with Nica is tender, innocent and idealized.
Gilb fills the apartment complex with other idiosyncratic characters such as Pink, an albino African-American man who, to the consternation of Sonny's stepfather, sells old cars in front of the building. Pink befriends Sonny, but the boy wrestles with suspicions that Pink is using him. And there is Cloyd's drinking pal, Bud, a redneck construction worker who proudly espouses a deep hatred for anyone who is not white - despite the fact that he is married to a Mexican-American woman.
By end of the novel, Sonny has survived the many dangers of his young life, including a riot that is sparked by the racial tensions among the city's white, brown and black inhabitants. Sonny grows into a young man who ultimately demonstrates a maturity and compassion that is lacking in most of the people who populate his life.
The Flowers illuminates the true art of Dagoberto Gilb's fiction as he explores life's passions and ambiguities while grappling with the interplay between hope and despair.
This is a ferocious, provocative novel, one that confirms Gilb's reputation as one of our finest contemporary writers.