Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Empathy for a jerk. Note by Note. Two Reviews.

Michael Sedano

Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037

Back in 2003, the New York Times began a beautiful series of nine articles documenting the process of building a Steinway & Sons concert grand piano. The first article hit the paper in May, with follow-ups coming almost monthly until the ninth article arrived, all too soon, in April 2004. At the rate some newspapers have begun to shirk their responsibilities to readers, it’s encouraging to note that the New York Times still makes all nine articles available at the click of a keyboard.

These articles remained foremost in my memory when I came across an advertisement for a documentary movie called “Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037.” Naturally, I had to see the movie. Easier said than done, however, which is why I mention the NYTimes series. Documentaries have a tough time getting screen time, so if “Note by Note” happens to come to a screen near you, it’s well worth the effort to seek it out.

The documentary might be more aptly subtitled after the “Characters” chapters on the movie’s website, “Meet the the Craftsmen and Musicians (Who) Play a Part in This Year-long Labor of Love.” Love, indeed. The documentary engages the viewer through interviews that discover an ethos illustrating that these men and women, regardless their background and particular job, fully comprehend the significance of their labor. From the lumber guy who hangs around the foul-smelling pools of a sawmill to pianists pounding keyboard after keyboard to select the one instrument that fits not just their performing style but the particular piece being showcased, the interviews prove that all these workers invest each piano with a distinctive soul and it is that which makes each instrument uniquely itself.

The documentary offers up one moving segment after another. The Bosnian immigrant with a wood plane he brought to this country with him; the Salvadoran immigrant brothers who strum their guitars during lunch; the hippie-looking piano tuner who’s moved up through the ranks to a critically vital role in a room decorated with his child’s drawing of dad and a “paino.”

For me, the most touching moment comes when an “ordinary” piano changes hands from factory sale to a family’s living room. For an instant, I remember the Laurel and Hardy classic of the two pendejos moving a piano up a tortuous set of steps. In “Note by Note,” the movers maneuver the grand up the few steps into the family’s living room. The instrument uncrated, the boy serenades his parents and grandparents. Tears fill their eyes as the boy moves smoothly through the notes of a Mozart sonata. Then the camera cuts to the misty eyes of one of the piano movers. The smile on that laborer’s face is all the picture anyone needs to understand “sublime.” Which is what this documentary film does, over and over.




Dagoberto Gilb.
The Flowers.

NY: Grove Atlantic.
SBN: 0-8021-4402-0 / ISBN-13: 978-0-8021-4402-7

Dagoberto Gilb has done it again, crafted an interesting, sympathetic portrait of a real loser. Gilb weaves a fascinating dystopia surrounding Los Flores, an apartment house where Sonny, his mother, stepfather, and residents come into our awareness. In The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuña, the title character is a hapless vato who means no one any harm, and goes through life doing just that—harming no one. Now Gilb has come up with Sonny and The Flowers, another hapless vato but not necessarily harmless nor unharmed.

Daniel Olivas, who reviewed The Flowers in February, well in advance of my reading, terms the novel a “coming of age” piece. Then, recently, Daniel cites an interview where Gilb observes,

I've had some ideas about him for a decade but first pen to paper was about five years ago and then I really got at it recently. Within the last two to three years. I actually finished a version two years ago. I didn't know if I was really done. And then I went back. I took more time with it—not necessarily with the writing, but I'd let it sit for a while. Not knowing what to do—if I got it right. I wanted to make sure I had what I wanted.

I second Daniel Olivas’ esteem for the novel as an effective work. The Flowers is a beautifully written, well-plotted, novel. And it is, in its most literal sense, a coming of age novel, what with the first car, the first sex, the first infatuation, the splitting apart from motherly love. But the world of this novel leads me to wonder just what Gilb “wanted” from this second loser novel.

Mickey Acuña’s world rests precariously at the edge of society, and as the novel concludes, although a reader is never certain of his motive, Mickey has voluntarily walked off the edge. Sonny’s already half out of this world with a psychological disability. For much of the rest, he either lacks self-control or gets jerked around by the adults who control his world.

What a wretched world Gilb populates for hapless Sonny. His mother marries a racist Okie with money, and in a short while begins stepping out on the man, engaging Sonny to cover for her absence. Sonny’s a thief and burglar who steals from the neighbors and his mother. He excuses his burglaries as curiosity to see how the other half lives, but eventually discloses that he’s taken money and liberties in other people’s homes.

Sonny falls in puppy love with Nica, a sequestered neighbor teenager whose mother and stepfather keep her from school to serve as their fulltime live-in babysitter, since both work night jobs. Nica, whose name might actually be Guadalupe, doesn’t like being Mexicana in California, but speaks only Spanish and spends all day watching Spanish-language teevee. Another neighbor—a prostitute as it turns out-- seduces Sonny with come-hither flirtation, revealing clothes, wine and mota. Sonny, without recognizing it, has been raped by the woman, and this explains why he is at once scared and confused by what happens in Cindy’s apartment.

Sonny’s world has true friends, it’s not all bleakness. There’s the albino black used car salesman who gives Sonny wheels in exchange for information on stepfather Cloyd, who doesn’t recognize his tenant as a black man. There are schoolmate twins, a couple of straight-A student nerds, who admire Sonny’s independence and perceived maturity, but regularly display fear that Sonny might hurt them. There’s a kindly older couple who operate a run-down bowling alley where Sonny gets most of his meals and adult kindness.

And there are moments of moral equivocation and incongruity. There’s the harmless Russian immigrant from Spain, who sits and watches all day. One of Cloyd’s racist pals, a mean ex-cop, is married to a substitute teacher who longs for art and beauty. She expresses disgust at her husband and Cloyd’s rantings and seems likely to leave him, but stays with him despite her distress. There’s a “pervert” who stalks Sonny and the twins, but then Sonny engages him in a strangely intimate conversation. Sonny’s “normal” world is full of such mostly awful complexities.

So what is it that Gilb “wanted” from this character, from the ethos of this Chicano protagonist? He’s damaged from the start and is pushing limits to no good end. Would Gilb have the reader understand Sonny’s final act as a moment of nobility, as the writer’s way of illustrating some insightful argument about humankind that was absent when Mickey Acuña just walked away? In a way, this is what Sonny does as the novel closes, saving the innocent Nica. Or has he? Sonny has stolen several thousand dollars of hard-working racist Cloyd’s money. He’s convinced the babysitter to abandon her baby brother and parents and hightail it back to Mexico, on Cloyd’s money. She doesn’t like being Mexican, over here, but maybe back home, she’ll find the happiness deprived her on this side. But what of Sonny?

Here's an idea! Read Dan's review of this novel, read it yourself, then let's continue our discussion by means of the comments feature. Really, what do you make of characters like Mickey, and more so, Sonny?

Until next week, July's final Tuesday, see you then.


La Bloga welcomes your comments and insights on this or any column. Click below on the comment counter to leave your message. La Bloga welcomes guest columnists. If you have an extended view, a review, an arts or cultural event you want to share with La Bloga's readers, click here to discuss your invitation.


Sheryl said...

I think Gilb complicates issues of race and class. He moves beyond simplistic black and white views or polemics of what it means to be Latino or of any cultural or racial group. He mixes things up and takes risks with language. The language of the book is quite dazzling. The words spring off the page. I like this about his work. There is a conscious undertaking to approach language as an artist rather than a politician. It is not dull because it is filled with surpising turns and subtle restraint. He complicates things and this in my opinion, is the mark of an artist. I also find Sonny's reaction to an abusive situation very interesting. How one negotiates such power dynamics to a place of survival is interesting in itself to me as one reader. The characters question demands that societal stereotypes place on individuals. Here Sonny does so with his imagination. I like such language play and such questioning.

Christine said...

You're absolutely right Sheryl, Gilb's book, and the man, questions demands "that societal stereotypes place on individuals." He does this within our own community, by that I mean the Latino, more specifically the Mexican American writing community, makes people examine themselves, their motivations, reasons for doing things. What I like about this book in particular is that it doesn't pander to an Anglo audience (actually all his books do) or the Mexican American one. He just writes truthful and honest characters without thinking about or what the larger community will think of them.

I think if I may so bold to suggest that his work is ahead of its time in our own community. He writes as if we are past the point of explaining the cultura to anyone within our lit. He writes about the human condition, using characters who happen to be Mexican American. He writes as we all should, like we are a part of mainstream American, not it's bastard child that views us as such.

This review of the book was an eye opener for me as I never once saw the kid Sonny as 'a loser.' I saw him as a representation of me, the working class, of all of us (Mexican Americans). How I, we grow up in this day and age, a commentary on race relations but never once as a loser. I found the narrator a strong individual, who made choices because of circumstances beyond his control. But I also get that ultimately a person reading a book views a character or story based on what and how they believe, with their own prejudices attached.

Gilb's characters are complicated just like being Mexican American. Everyone knows and understands the push pull of race especially here in the States, where prejudice about race is mixed up with prejudice about class. I'm grateful his work is a part of our community lit. and don't understand why he doesn't get as much support as others seem to receive our community.

Anonymous said...

first of all mickey acuña does not 'just walk away' at the end of gilb's novel. that is like saying waitng for godot is too much about 'waiting' and next criticizing beckett for not making his characters do something else that is more understandable. beckett's characters are complex and so are his plays. gilb's too. yr criticizing gilb's character sonny in his amazing novel is par to not liking fiction that is not for right in elementary school

a friend who saw yrs wrote me you probably wouldn't like hamlet very much either! he'd be a jerk and a loser according to yr standards too. prince hamlet didn't like his mother or stepfather either. he even kills them both.

i read yr review of the book and tho i already read dagoberto gilb's newest and i found it was literary achivement, yr summary of the story made me believe it even more. aren't yr worries about sex and sonny's stealing slighly puritanical? and it is fiction! i did not for a second see sonny as a bad character. not a jerk or a loser. sounds like the reilly factor radio to me. he has trouble. he is like us, fighting. waiting for godot too. tho maybe sonny helped there when he helped nica.

i appreciate yr willingness to put yr opinion out there, even if i disagree. i can't agree more with the two commenters above too. gilb has unique talent that isn't easy. like lots of artists whos work will last.

--raul garcia

msedano said...

I find it interesting that some readers feel compelled to like or defend characters in novels or plays. This is puro empathy, or quizás listening too closely to the colors of powerful prose. One can understand a character like Sonny, yet not want him living next door.

Extenuating circumstances might temper the pejoration inherent in being called a loser or a jerk. Lucky, Didi, Estragon, the Danish prince, Mickey Acuña, are no less interesting for being troubled tipos.

An issue I'd like to explore ongoing relates to the ethos of the Chicana Chicano hero and antihero. Sonny, for example. Is his act for Nica noble, or dangerous? Regardless, do motives excuse modalities, or define them?

At the same time, I want to celebrate chicanarte for its own sake. It's like when Mickey Acuña makes the scene. Same year, Richard Ford comes out with Independence Day, and wins a Pulitzer Prize for that story of an East Coast loser. Yet, Gilb's work is the better, more powerfully written novel. Maybe class (of the jurors probably) has something to do with critical appreciation--Ford's character is a middle class loser with a family, whereas soltero Mickey Acuña's last known residence is the YMCA. (And who knows if the jurors took the opportunity to read Gilb?)

I appreciate Sheryl's, christine's, and raul garcia's comments. Thank you. Maybe one day Gilb will do us the favor of letting us meet Sonny and Nica a couple of years down the road. Where do you suppose time has taken them?