Sunday, April 15, 2012

American Son, by Brian Ascalon Roley

The immigrant experience provides rich material for the novelist, including tales of struggle and triumph. American Son features no triumph, however. It is the profoundly sad story of two Filipino-American teenage brothers; their mother is Filipino, their absent father Anglo-American. Tomas, the older of the two, has been kicked out of their Catholic high school in Los Angeles, dresses like a Latino gang member, and breeds and trains attack dogs to sell to nervous celebrities. Gabe, the younger son and narrator, is "the son who is quiet and no trouble"; but Gabe is struggling--he feels out of place with at school and in the neighborhood, he's afraid of his own brother, and he loves but is ashamed of his mother.

The book has three sections, each beginning with a letter from the boys' Uncle Betino, who chastises their mother for the way she is raising the boys and urging her to send them to live with him in the Philippines. The first section focuses on Tomas, his dogs, and the multiple ways in which he embarrasses and abuses Gabe and their mother. In the second section, Gabe has sold one of Tomas's dogs, stolen his car, and taken off driving north; when the car breaks down, he ends up riding for hours with a tow truck driver whose bigoted commentary plays into Gabe's myriad insecurities. In the final section, Gabe is back home, forced into various criminal activities by Tomas to compensate for stealing his dog and car. When Tomas decides they need to take revenge on a woman who is hounding their mother about paying for minor damages to her Land Rover, Gabe's descent into Tomas's world seems complete.

What is remarkable about the situation that Brian Roley depicts is how little adults do to help Gabe, even though the signals are so loud as to be deafening (stealing from your gangster brother and driving to Oregon is a pretty big hint that something is wrong). His mother, while caring, has no clue how to handle her sons. Other relatives do little but preach at Gabe or his mother, and school officials totally drop the ball. The tragedy is not that Gabe's downfall was inevitable, but that it was so avoidable.

Favorite passage:
The way she [Gabe's mother] looked at that moment--it haunts me--and I go over it in my head, trying to figure out what she was feeling. At times she looks mad but at others she seems hurt, and I cannot tell which look is my memory and which is my imagination.

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