Thursday, February 7, 2008

Existentialism, Magic 8 Balls and Dagoberto Gilb

There’s this journalism ethics code that I’m bound by and it states that it’s a conflict of interest to review a book by someone you know. Everyone knows that it’s near impossible not to know of someone in the writing community and in the Mexican American writing community it’s peor. I mean, everybody knows everybody, we’re one big ol’ dysfunctional family.

I told one publication that wanted me to review a book by someone I know that I would do it if I were allowed full disclosure. That would have meant that I state that I know Dagoberto Gilb and studied with him at Texas State. Would have to tell everyone that he was the reason I went to the university, etc. And because they have journalistic integrity they passed.

I’m not sure if blogs qualify as journalism but for my purposes I’m going to say they don’t, and I’m outta journalism anyways. Sorta. I really never believed in the ethics codes they drilled into us at J-school, took every freebie that was offered so as not to offend the generous giver. So here I sit with a blank page to fill up with my thoughts after reading Gilb’s The Flowers.

Ay, this book, this one really does it for me, as I read it I wanted to cheer because finally, finally someone gives a real picture of what urban youth are like. Gilb’s main character Sonny Bravo, although a teen, is older than his years, smarter than anyone gives him credit for, and self-sufficient, thanks in large part to his absent mother. Gilb really shows how some poor urban youth grow up quickly because they are left to fend for themselves.

Some early reviews have stated that Sonny Bravo is similar to JD Salinger’s Holden Caulfield. In my view, there really is no comparison, one is a weak spoiled child driven by insecurities and imagined fears and the other is a strong survivor driven by insecurities and an innate morality. Holden, who was born into wealth and privilege, viewed life from atop the middle (maybe upper-middle) class power structure, whereas, Sonny sees it all from the bottom up, giving readers a much needed (and never really seen) perspective. I also liked that Gilb dispels the stereotype of poor urban youth as ignorant fools.

And I think it’s misguided to call Gilb’s work “a coming of age story” because Sonny, although just a teen, is mature beyond his years, does teenage things, yes, but is more grounded, rational and thoughtful than those adults who are suppose to be his guardians. These two books offer two very different places, teenagers and mindsets.

If a comparison were necessary, then Gilb’s Sonny would be closer to the narrator in Richard Wright’s Black Boy because this narrator, like Sonny, grew up against the dominant white power structure in an urban environment. However, even this comparison is not accurate because religion played a large role in shaping Wright’s agnostic leanings and Sonny’s walk offers a glimpse to existentialism.

Ah, man, did I just write that? I hate big words and existentialism is one of them words that automatically makes my eyes bob like the die in a magic eight ball when you shake it—reply hazy, try again. So here it is better, Sonny’s mundane life in The Flowers apartment complex reflects the reality of living, living for yourself, without a God and creating your own destiny. Which is another reason I loved this book. No stereotypes of Mexican Americans attending mass on Sundays and nary a Virgin de Guadalupe in the novel. Wow, another side to Mexican Americans. Who knew? We’re not just the clichés we’ve been reading about for ages. He treats Sonny as a complex individual, which makes this story so much better than Salinger’s kid book. The, true to life, racial tensions alone make this a noteworthy effort.

Sonny’s long, boring days spent doing chores at the apartment complex where things and events are forever happening to him, and he reacting, and thus making more things happen—having his first sexual encounter, falling in love, getting involved in people’s lives, making discoveries. This book’s pace reminds me of Gilb’s first novel “The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuña.” However, this is a more bearable story for me because it is at least hopeful.

Although, I am a Gilb fan, I don’t necessarily like everything he writes and I didn’t particularly like Mickey Acuña. It wasn’t the writing I disliked but the place the book took me emotionally--Mickey’s constant state of going nowhere. It was a bit too real, rung too true. It took me back to my childhood, the stagnant, go nowhere type of life that I was forever repeating and often still do. After I finished the book, I shivered and said to myself, I never want to feel that again. Can you “not like” a novel for all the right reasons?

The Flowers I enjoyed for its romanticism, sweetness and optimism. Sonny’s finding in Nica all that is right and good with the world, and his eventually helping her out, creates meaning out of a seemingly meaningless existence. The bittersweet ending reminded me more of Jane Austen than Camus or the other humorless French dude who writes for all the big word readers.

Perhaps it’s best that I’m confined to review Gilb’s effort on a blog because I’ve yet to read the book again and perhaps on my second go around, I’ll make some more discoveries.