Dagoberto Gilb: “Uncle Rock” (PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012)

05/05/2012 § 4 Comments

Originally published in The New Yorker, May 10, 2010. (Read it here.)

This is the sort of short story that sells collections, both by dint of being the first of the twenty stories anthologized by the PEN/O. Henry editor Laura Furman, but also in terms of Dagoberto Gilb’s own collection, Before the End, After the Beginning, which also contains one of my all time favorite stories, “please, thank you.” All that, and it has a relatively happy ending, too: a sort of coming-of-age for this young son of a Mexican immigrant, torn not only between cultures but set adrift by the lack of a proper father figure. Most importantly to my own rubrics, each line is rich, textured, and justified through the context of the story as a whole. “In the morning, at his favorite restaurant, Erick got to order his favorite American food, sausage and eggs and hash-brown papitas fried crunchy on top.” This isn’t mere description, mind you, this is our introduction to a ritual, to the sort of life this boy leads — that’s why this restaurant is modified by “favorite.” The emphasis on American food gives you a hint to how he defines himself, culturally, but note also the bilingual choice, then, for papitas. As the paragraph develops, we learn, too, exactly why he focuses so much on his food — a thing that most of us non foodies would gloss straight over to get to the good stuff. It’s because there’s another part to this ritual, in which a man will first be “staring too much” and then will come over, all friendly like, to hit on his beautiful mother. Appearances and descriptions are important here, too: who are the types of men that the boy’s mother attracts? (“Friendly, he’d put his thick hands on the table as if he were touching water, and squat low, so that he was sitting level, as though he were being polite, and he’d smile, with coffee-and-tobacoo-stained teeth.” Bold emphasis is mine.) And who are the types of men that the mother responds to? (“She almost always gave the man her number if he was wearing a suit. Not a sports coat but a buttoned suit with a starched white shirt and a pinned tie meant something to her.”) Meanwhile, there’s our eleven-year-old boy: “Erick drove a fork into a goopy American egg yolk and bled it into his American potatoes.” (Note the mono-lingual choice, this time around, reflecting his anger toward these callous, piggish American men: stabbing, bleeding into what he loves.)

That’s rich material, ripe for simply digesting or some deeper dissecting, and as the story continues, we see that Erick’s response to what he sees and disapproves of is to simply remain, for the most part, mute. What’s the point of engaging these shallow, transient “fathers’? And what is there, really, to say to his mother, given that, on the worst possible level within himself, he can understand why she continues to see these people? (She often threatens him with stories of what life was like back home: “He saw this Mexico as if it were the backdrop of a movie on afternoon TV, where children walked around barefoot in the dirt or on broken sidewalks and small men wore wide-brimmed straw hats and baggy white shirts and pants.”) No wonder he tells his one friend, a white neighbor named Albert, that the rich engineer his mother is dating is his father. No wonder he burns with shame when her mother’s poor(er) Mexican love, Roque, shows up to comfort her after the engineer both dumps and fires her, when he must pretend to Albert that this is his Uncle Rock, a lie — and another matter of appearances — that is quickly dispelled. Then again, listen to the way Uncle Rock appears (in contrast to the other men we’ve met): “He wore nothing flashy or expensive, just ordinary clothes that were clean and ironed, and shoes he kept shined. He combed and parted his hair neatly. He didn’t have a buzzcut like the men who didn’t like kids.” This man, unlike all the others, is clean, and while we’re on the subject of appearances: “He loved her so much–anybody could see his pride when he was with her.”

The final third of this story, then, involves yet another great American pastime: a trip to a Dodgers game, where the splendor of another world of riches and fame can be held even by a poor child sitting in the bleachers: “For him the green of the field was a magic light: the stadium decks surrounding them seemed as far away as Rome.” And indeed, there’s opportunity for all here, all are equal: he catches a home-run. Perhaps all of his prayers have been answered. After the game, as the Phillies board their bus, they call to the boy to throw them the ball so that they can autograph it for him. And they do! It’s a better life! Except, and here’s the rub, then one of the players and his voice from above add a little more: “The hand threw something at him. For your mom, okay? Comprendes? Erick stared at the asphalt lot where the object lay, as if he’d never seen a folded-up piece of paper before. Para tu mama, bueno?” These people could give one shit about him, about his small-time dreams. They want to sleep with his mother. To use her up, like everyone else, of course they do. So as he turns back across the lot, as he sees her with Roque — no more Uncle Rock — he throws the paper on the ground and runs over to them, ending the story with this line, the first that he’s spoken: “Look, he said in a full voice. They all signed the ball.” He’s made his choice; he’s found a truer happiness, the sort that can’t be bought.

Dagoberto Gilb on “Uncle Rock”

One wonderful thing about the PEN/O. Henry collections is that they have feedback from the editor, jurors, and authors. I normally don’t read the interviews that are run online, say, at The New Yorker, but I’ll make an exception here, because I’m interested. According to his notes, Gilb writes from “an experience–personal or observed–that gets loaded onto and chipped away at and artistically distorted by the various obsessions I have.” I buy that: it’s a twist on the whole “Write what you know” spiel that most workshops attempt to drill into you. But more importantly, it’s in line with my own philosophies on fiction — particularly in opposition to non-fiction, or memoir — which is that truths are actually easier to digest by an audience once they’ve been slightly altered, just enough to slip secretly in under your skin. We’re so conditioned to cope with the world around us, to put up defensive walls, that we rarely let them down, unless we think we’re reading something Other. In that, fiction remains “the truth that tells a lie,” and if you start from a real place and find artistic ways to harness, adapt, and reveal that, I feel as if you can’t possibly miss.

Karen Carlson on “Uncle Rock”

Another nice thing about the PEN/O. Henry collections is that other people tend to blog about it. Karen Carlson is one of those people who has diligently been at this for a few years, covering BASS, Pushcart, and the stray collections that catch her eye. I enjoy a hearty literary discussion, and as I mentioned above, as I believe fiction works best when it sneaks in and refracts itself through the reader, I find it informative and interesting to see how others interpret it. (Karen goes a few steps further, too, in linking to some of the other literary blogs out there, people who covered this story back when it was first published. I guess I’m in the Trevor camp.) From her reactions, I don’t think she’s missed anything in the story — although she may be reading the mother too harshly; she wants what’s best for her child, not necessarily for herself, and she seems to have come around to Roque’s camp, even broaching the possibility of marrying him — rather, she simply hasn’t connected with the material in the same way that I have. (And mind you, my way isn’t the right way.) Does that have to do with the embedded cultural references? Is it a difference of perspectives across genders? (Karen brings up the question of where all the women bloggers are; it’s a good one.) Or is it a matter of brevity/density? (Karen seems to agree most with Federico’s view, in that these pages require too much patience.) I dig that; sometimes a longer, looser story has more time to work its rhythms and ways into you; a shorter, tauter story can seem harsh and unapproachable by comparison. If it immediately misses, there’s no chance for it to correct. Well, hey, I started this blog to talk about fiction, so let’s talk!

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§ 4 Responses to Dagoberto Gilb: “Uncle Rock” (PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012)

  • Hi Aaron – I’m thinking that our different takes on this story boil down to our read of the mother. You see her as someone wanting the best for her child. I see her more harshly (and I blushed when I read that; I don’t mean to be a cynic, honest, I’m capable of great compassion and I understand too well the realities of limited options and living with honest mistakes in judgment) as someone who views a rich man as the answer to all her problems, and overlooks Roque for a long time simply because he isn’t rich enough.

    Here’s what I think is really interesting: the story allows for both possibilities. I re-read it pretty carefully, looking for clues. Mom isn’t a bad mom, not at all – she takes her son to the diner for breakfast. Wait, does she do that to spend time with him, or because she knows she’ll pick up a man there? Does she get all the perks for the kid – ice cream from the diner owner, truck rides from the trucker, horses from the engineer – because she’s trying to see if the kid likes these guys, or because she’s trying to placate him while she tries to land her fish? The only communication between mom and kid that’s reported are exhortations to speak English (make a good impression on the engineer) and the inquiry about marrying Roque. Granted, the kid’s got his own filter, and, by the way, he isn’t exactly happy with mom, keeping mute. Why? Lots of mixed signals.

    So I think it’s interesting how the story allows multiple readings. And maybe that’s the genius of it. It’s scary to me to look in that mirror and discover I’m a catty bitch.

    But seriously, over breakfast?

  • tneal says:

    Multiple readings of the mom? Only if someone is trying to normatively assess the mother. Is she a good mom (look at how involved she is bringing Erick along)? Or a bad mom (dragging Erick along as she picks up men)?

    Instead of debating this how about we accept there is one reading of her, that she is, like all people, filled with contradictions and desires that sometimes compete. Life must be tough being a single Mexican woman with a small child in LA. She has needs and aspirations and she loves Erick.

    Karen, it’s not that you are a catty bitch (I adore your willingness to accept it though) rather that, for whatever reason, there are some things about the mother you failed to see or empathize with. Of course there are multiple readings, but those all are myopic brought about by the real genius of Gilb: he captures–at the least touches upon–the complexity of being a human.

    • Aaron Riccio says:

      Welcome, Neal; I’m with you 100% about Gilb’s writing: “he captures the complexity of being a human.” Funny how it’s so easy to *say* that, so much harder to execute it, and I think it is indeed a credit to his writing that he can *fairly* befuddle readers — i.e., he doesn’t omit necessary information, he doesn’t cheat with twists and reversals, he just presents you with situations that, in their unfamiliarity, force us to look at what’s being said anew.

    • Hi tneal – I think this story has forced me to look at myself more than at the story – and maybe that’s the most important thing any literature can do.
      (myopic – that’s a step up from catty bitch, right? 😉 )

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