Leaves of Sass

Though Sonny Bravo, the narrator of The Flowers, is 15, Dagoberto Gilb’s novel-his second, after The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuña (1994)-is not being marketed as young-adult fiction. The story of a vato with attitude, the book is more ¡YO! than YA. It recounts the coming-of-age of a ballsy California picaro. But for the fact that he lacks a younger sister and an older brother, has never attended prep school, or ventured within 2,000 miles of Radio City Music Hall, and comes from a working-class Mexican background, Sonny Bravo could be Holden Caulfield.

The Flowers cover

The Flowers derives its title from a small apartment complex managed by Cloyd Longpre, Sonny’s odious stepfather. “The Cloyd,” as he disparagingly names the man, is a trophy hunter who has snared Sonny’s sexy mother Silvia. A hard-drinking, gun-obsessed bigot who refuses to rent to blacks, he is willing to overlook her Mexican origins because of her gorgeous body and the prospect of home-cooked fajitas. (“I love to eat them tacos,” Sonny overhears Cloyd say on the phone. “Now I even got myself married to a pretty little Mexican gal.”) Even after marrying Cloyd, Silvia continues to turn heads, but, devoid of any culinary aptitude or ambition, she smuggles canned salsa onto her latest husband’s dinner plate. A transplanted Dust Bowl Okie, Cloyd dubs his building “Los Flores,” which Sonny, despite his own unsteady grasp of Spanish, suspects is not quite auténtico. A classmate observes that the gringo got the genders wrong: “Las Flores means ‘The Flowers.’ What your daddy the Cloyd has up there just means the vato’s a dumb-ass.”

The wildest of the flowers blooming in Los Flores, Sonny becomes a reluctant resident when his self-absorbed mother becomes Mrs. Cloyd Longpre. He is conscripted into maintenance work-sweeping, painting, weeding, moving garbage cans. He takes his meals apart, mostly at the bar of a local bowling alley. Sonny finds no friends among his schoolmates, but discovers comfort wandering alone through the mean streets of his new environs. His interactions with occupants of the six other apartments in Los Flores form the focus of The Flowers through Sonny’s own distinctive, demotic voice. Sonny is befriended by the resident of apartment No. 6, an exuberant, odd-looking man called Pink who makes his living hustling used cars that he parks outside Los Flores. The fact that Pink is albino keeps obtuse Cloyd from evicting him because he is African American.

The most provocative neighbors are two women so different from each other that, for an inexperienced adolescent, they constitute a variation on the hoary Madonna-Whore binary.

In apartment No. 3, directly above Sonny, is randy 18-year-old Cindy, a bored, lonely, and habitually stoned housewife usually seen around the building clad in a skimpy bikini. Though terrified that Cindy’s brutish husband will catch them in flagrante, Sonny succumbs to Cindy’s persuasion to sexual initiation and returns repeatedly for advanced lessons. In apartment No. 4, Sonny finds a very different kind of feminine temptation, a cloistered beauty named Nica. An immigrant from Veracruz who speaks no English, Nica is hostage to her family’s adversity. While her mother and stepfather are away all day laboring at menial jobs, she is confined to the apartment, forced to care for her infant half-brother, Angel. Though he can communicate with her only in halting Spanish, Sonny falls in love with Nica, or at least with his fantasy of her as a damsel in distress awaiting his heroic intervention.

Though the city is nowhere named, The Flowers is set in an urban jumble very much like Los Angeles, where beaches sing to those who never get to see the sea and sirens signal racial violence. Los Flores is located beside a busy boulevard just beyond an expanding African-American neighborhood against which Cloyd keeps his rifles ready. Like Gilb, Sonny’s mother comes from El Paso, but in her son’s imagination, Texas is a distant, daunting place: “Texas was maybe more far away than Mexico to me. Mexico was lots of people, land everywhere, mountains and rivers and oceans. Texas was all dirt, it was hats, it was way far away, it was mean hardasses.” Texas is not far away from Gilb, who lives in Austin and teaches at Texas State University. But he has frequently denounced the mean hardasses who he claims dominate the state’s cultural establishment and exclude Tejano and working-class voices from the literary conversation. He has clashed repeatedly with the editors of Texas Monthly, who rejected his submissions because, he claimed in an interview with the Southwestern Writers Collection, “… they weren’t interested in the Mexican American experience from the point of view of Mexican Americans; they were only interested in confirming their stereotypes of Mexican and Chicano culture.”

In a 2003 essay collection he called Gritos, Gilb cries out that “… even after all these years, people like me are unseen, patronized, so out of the portrait of American literature. It seems impossible that so many of the writers I have known-and yes, me, too,-with a decent record of publications by usual standards, still fight a battle for acceptance, that we are a product of an ongoing American story that is not foreign, not only about a dark exotic people, not only fascinating as so much is ‘south of the border,’ not just about the poor and dangerous other side of the tracks.” With Hecho en Tejas, an anthology of Tejano writing he edited in 2006, Gilb attempted to open readers’ eyes to a literary tradition that had, like exquisite mushrooms, been thriving in the dark. But a 1995 Guggenheim had already tarnished Gilb’s own invisibility, and by the time he and Rolando Hinojosa-Smith received the prestigious Bookend Award at last November’s Texas Book Festival, the battle for acceptance was won.

Sonny Bravo is not nearly the champion of Chicano voices that his author is. Sonny would just as soon speak in a tongue that is alien to Aztlan: French. To ingratiate himself with his new wife, Silvia, Cloyd offers her son “one big thing” of his choosing. Sonny replies: “I wanna go to Notre Dame.” Cloyd naturally assumes that the boy wishes tickets to a football game, until Sonny explains: “I mean Notre Dame the church. The one in Paris. In France.” Amid the bleakness of his existence at Los Flores, Sonny clings to the fantasy of escape to France. Though he seems indifferent to his formal schooling, he acquires a textbook and begins teaching himself to speak French. He says that he does it “just to mess with everybody,” as if the language of Racine, Voltaire, and Hugo offers a way to declare his independence from an environment he rejects. Dropping French phrases never fails to bring a beatific smile to Sonny’s face, even, and especially, when his listener has no idea what he is saying. He admits that “I hated talking in Spanish,” and, though Nica speaks only Spanish, he tells her that he loves her in French. Nica does not share his interest in Paris and longs instead to go to Spain. When she asks him whether he has any interest in Spain, Sonny admits, “I don’t know, Spain seems so … I don’t know. Spanish.” A boy whose feast of choice is hamburgers and french fries (albeit laced with jalapeños) seems an unlikely protagonist for an author famous for championing Chicanismo. Or else Sonny is an effective tool for exploding stereotypes.

With the first sentence of The Flowers, Sonny informs the reader about his practice of slipping into other people’s houses while they are away. Though he sometimes pockets loose cash, burglary is not the motive. Instead, he loves to imagine living an alternative life. Lying in a stranger’s bed, Sonny indulges in a kind of transcendental meditation. “How would I be if I lived here?” he asks himself. “I’d let that come into me, I’d let my mind go to the show it liked. Maybe you could say I would go off to my own world. To me it wasn’t mine, nothing like mine, because it would go to black. … I’d start to see shapes floating and straightening and wiggling and see it like it was a music that didn’t make sound but was making a story. Not a regular story and I don’t mean one you hear some loco nut tell you, one that didn’t have nothing to do with people or places you’ve ever seen.” There, at the outset of the proceedings, in young Sonny’s account of the power of the imagination to transcend and transform the here and now, is this novel’s own ars poetica, its key to understanding Gilb’s achievement. What makes The Flowers bloom, what lifts it beyond polemic and cliché, is its ability to transport the reader into another life. A story “that didn’t have nothing to do with people or places you’ve ever seen,” the book also lifts its seasoned author to another place in the literary order.

Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio and is the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth and The Translingual Imagination.

Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman is the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth.

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Published at 12:00 am CST