Hector Tobar : “The Barbarian Nurseries”
Domestic Disturbances in Bicultural L.A.
By REBECCA DONNER
The literature of Los Angeles must discern shadows in the sunshine if it hopes to transcend mere entertainment. Héctor Tobar knows this. A native of the city, Tobar knows the dark and the light, the high and the low; he knows the spas and the salvage shops, the wrought iron and the barbed wire; he knows the West Side, the Valley and downtown — and he has put it all into his big new novel, “The Barbarian Nurseries.” Mercifully, Hollywood did not make the cut.
The mixed-race couple at the story’s center is Maureen and Scott Torres-Thompson. Maureen is a Midwestern transplant who, despite a habit of chewing at the ends of her ginger hair, is the picture of composed elegance. Scott is a Stanford-educated software millionaire born of humbler beginnings. Half Mexican (English is his mother tongue), he is by all appearances the embodiment of the American dream. But social ascendancy has come at a price: he is estranged from his father, whose advice — “Never hang your hat where you can’t reach it” — he has pointedly ignored.
Scott and Maureen live high on a hill in a gated community. So much in their palatial home is overwrought, as if to compensate by excess for impoverishments nonmaterial. The children’s room is jampacked with exquisite toys — an Art Deco mobile dangles planets of colored glass, pop-up books produce dragons and castles — but nowhere is their affluence more vividly displayed than in the tropical garden, the book’s central, potent image. Here, banana trees and lush ferns thrive. Such profusion in the arid air of Southern California, a climate better suited to cactuses, owes its survival to Pepe, the Mexican gardener responsible for its maintenance. A foot-wide stream gushes forth with a flick of a switch. “La petite rain forest,” Maureen has taken to calling it, a formulation that carries the whiff of cultural snobbery (Pepe would say pequeña).
No novel that purports to tell the truth about Los Angeles can avoid the theme of artifice. How fitting it is that the house with a fake stream in its fake tropical garden is situated on a street with a fake Spanish name. Paseo Linda Bonita is, we learn, a redundancy. (Translation: Beautiful Pretty Street.) Scott and Maureen don’t speak much Spanish, and their employees don’t speak much English. Communication between employer and employee is limited to facial expressions, hand signals and a crude Spanglish that fails to express all but the most rudimentary notions. Communication between Maureen and Scott is strained, too. Maureen can’t comprehend why her mild-mannered husband would punch a wall, and he resolutely declines to explain. Scott is given to moody silences, and encourages the attentions of a junior programmer at an outfit called Elysian Systems.
The tribulations of Scott and Maureen receive compassionate attention here, but it is Araceli, their live-in maid, who commands the author’s primary sympathies. So too, ours. Much of the potency of “The Barbarian Nurseries” comes from our knowledge, as privileged readers, of Araceli’s thoughts and feelings, disclosures that bring forth some of its freshest imagery. We learn of her girlhood home in Mexico City, where she awoke to the sound of her mother sweeping the patio with a bundle of slender branches that played a percussive song: “Clean-clean, clean-clean, clean-clean.” We learn that she attended art school at the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, but economic hardship prevented her from continuing her studies; now, she constructs and hangs from her ceiling weird sculptures like the Garbage Phoenix, a menacing assemblage of colored plastic forks and knives scavenged from her employers’ parties. At one such party, we find her distributing a tray of sopes and other hors d’oeuvres to Scott and Maureen’s friends. The proximity of her homeland is felt in the sangrias they throw back, the taquitos they consume and the sopes’ ingredients (tomatoes, avocados and Oaxaca cheese: “the colors of the Mexican flag”). Many of the partygoers are, like Scott and Maureen, mixed-race couples, but when one among them drunkenly voices his grievances about Mexicans in Los Angeles, an awkward silence ensues: “They avoided discussing race, as if the mere mention of the subject might cause their fragile alliances to come apart. ‘Mexican’ was a word that sounded harsh, somehow.”
The moment passes, the party resumes. The expression Araceli wears is as buttoned-up as her filipina, a boxy uniform that renders her silhouette shapeless. She remains, in the eyes of her employers and their friends, inscrutable, unknowable.
Social and racial conflict assume a larger dimension when Araceli is accused of a crime, setting into motion a plot that brings about the collision of people from radically different worlds. The charge is child endangerment, child abuse or kidnapping, depending on whose opinion is solicited in Child Protective Services, law enforcement or the network news, and media frenzy feeds an institutional overreaction that culminates in an Amber Alert.
What did Araceli do? Let it only be said that it was una mala comunicación.
Tobar, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at The Los Angeles Times, writes with authority about the machinations of Orange County-versus-Los Angeles municipal politics, and exhibits a seismographic sensitivity to the tensions along the fault lines of his cultural terrain. A story of scandal in a metropolis fraught with racial friction may elicit comparisons with Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities,” and though both may be classified as social novels, aiming to depict how contemporary society shapes our consciousness, the kinship is superficial. Both authors are alert to the absurdities of American culture, but the characters in Tobar’s metropolis do not yield readily to caricature.
The plight of an immigrant in Los Angeles was the focus of Tobar’s first novel, “The Tattooed Soldier,” and “The Barbarian Nurseries” broadens the scope, extending across social classes and over Mexico’s porous border. The strength of this book is to be found in its sympathetic portrayals of people who struggle to find a common language yet persist in misunderstanding one another. The author devotes considerable effort to inhabiting his characters’ inner lives. While characters’ thoughts, presented in italics, invite us into emotional states of being (“No one here admires me, no one looks up to me”) they fail to convince when we sense the author smuggling in thematic exposition (“How can we live in such a big world, where hooded sweatshirts and baby ballerina dresses circulate from north to south, from new to old, from those who pay retail to those who pay for their clothes by the pound?”). More assured is the author’s use of imagery to provide glimpses of psychological depth. After Araceli disappears, Maureen searches for a photograph to assist the police in her capture. The only one she can find shows Araceli in the background, her figure dim and blurred, suggesting “something furtive about its subject, as if she were already in flight when it was taken.” Tobar’s portraits, acute and humane, render his characters intelligible. His illuminations become our recognitions.