Héctor Tobar’s The Barbarian Nurseries is Native Son updated for an audience that believes itself (and, OK, usually really is) more enlightened than the police officers, lawyers, reporters, and citizens who intimidated, trapped, convicted, and executed Bigger Thomas. It’s also a twenty-first century The Help transplanted to the west coast and minus the mitigating influence of Skeeter, and if its tone were snarkier and more satirical this novel would be the precocious little brother of T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. What I mean by doing all this name-dropping and making all of these allusions is that THIS IS A PIECE OF IMPORTANT AMERICAN LITERATURE, PEOPLE. Fifty years from now, these will be the texts that high school and college instructors of American literature and American studies will have to decide between when designing their syllabi. Tobar makes clear his intention to compete at this elite level through his epigraphs from three canonical texts: DeLillo’s White Noise, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and Wright’s Native Son itself, and he seems to borrow the three-part structure of his novel directly from Native Son, although with a few important variations. Tobar is new to me as a novelist, and I am highly impressed by the ambition and scope of this novel and by the eloquence of his prose. He even renders the words and actions of children fairly well, unlike pretty much every other novelist I’ve read recently. He does not have a handle on his use of the omniscient point of view – a limitation that annoyed me but does not prevent me from recommending this novel highly. But more on that later.
The Bigger Thomas figure in this novel is Araceli Ramirez, a Mexican national and illegal U.S. employee who has worked as a housekeeper for the Torres-Thompson family for four years. While Araceli lacks Bigger’s vulgarity and propensity to violence, she is perceived by her employers as sullen, enigmatic, and opaque. In the four years that she works in their home, Scott Torres and Maureen Thompson never discover that Araceli was a promising art student in her native Mexico, for example, and they have a series of condescending nicknames for her – including “Madame Weirdness” – in spite of the fact that they rely on her and readily admit that she is a reliable employee.
Araceli was hired for housekeeping work only, and in four years she had little contact with the Torres-Thompson children except to prepare their meals and pick up their toys. Up until just before the novel begins, the family employs a nanny and a gardener in addition to Araceli. However, the family is struggling with financial problems as a result of both the economic recession in general and a specific bad investment made by Scott. In addition, the family has been spending extravagantly on their lavish home and their children’s private schools. As the novel begins, Araceli is in the process of learning that Guadalupe the nanny and Pepe the gardener have been let go and that she will be the only domestic employee in the family.
So far, you’re probably thinking that Araceli really doesn’t sound much like Bigger Thomas, and in some ways you’re right. At the outset of Native Son, Bigger hasn’t even been hired as a chauffeur for the Dalton family, while Araceli is an established employee of the Torres-Thompsons. Araceli is clearly smarter and more responsible than Bigger, and, unlike Bigger, Araceli is fundamentally innocent of the crime of which she is accused. However, there are plenty of other parallels between the two characters. Both migrated from their native communities in search of greater economic prosperity, and both are hired as domestic servants by employers who believe themselves to be liberal and enlightened. Both are swallowed up by circumstances that they cannot control and driven to actions that they don’t want to do, and in both cases their actions are at least partially caused by isolation and by their profound misunderstandings of the worlds that surround them. Both also are used as tools by political organizations and by the media (although you’ll be pleased to know that The Barbarian Nurseries does not end with a fifty-page Communist rant by Araceli’s defense attorney).
Here’s what happens. Scott Torres and his wife Maureen Thompson are fighting about money. They have recently laid off two of their three servants, and at their son’s birthday party one of their wealthiest friends makes a cutting remark about the quality of their garden (garden imagery – wink, wink – get it? Their Paradise is disintegrating?), which rankles Maureen because she knows that her husband will never take as good care of the garden as Pepe the gardener did. Maureen goes to a high-end nursery and hires a landscaper there to come and tear out the tropical garden they had previously maintained and install instead a garden of desert succulents, with promises that after the initial expense of installation, the new garden will be much less labor-intensive and will save the family money in the long run. After Maureen uses her credit card at the nursery, Scott attempts to use his card to buy a celebratory lunch for his colleagues, and the card is declined – resulting in his humiliation in front of his co-workers. In the resulting fight, Scott shoves Maureen and she falls on top of a glass coffee table, shattering it in a moment of danger and drama. While Scott has never attacked Maureen physically before, Maureen experiences “a moment of clarity, the sudden understanding of a long-suppressed fear: I always expected him to do this” (122).
Scott and Maureen sleep that night in separate rooms of their large house. When Maureen wakes up, she decides to take their baby and their stash of emergency cash and leave for a spa in the desert. She wants him to feel abandoned when he wakes up – and, of course, she also wants him to fear that she plans to press charges about the assault (although she has no such intention). Struck by “the curtains of an ancient, unerasable shame” (123), she reenacts a scene that she remembers many times from her impoverished Missouri childhood: the temporary departure of a battered wife. Shortly after her pre-dawn exodus, Scott wakes up and feels shame for what he has done, and while he imagines their eventual reconciliation (“This is what happens, he would tell her, when two middle-aged people push their sleep-deprived bodies to raise small children, a task we should leave for twentysomething decathletes, ballerinas, and other spry and limber people” ) but also decides “that for the moment a full retreat [is] in order, an escape from his wife’s sense of entitlement, from her new fascination with rare desert fauna [sic – I think Tobar means “flora”], which appeared to have replaced earlier fascinations with rustic Italian furniture and abstract California art” (126-7). So he leaves too, unaware that his wife is already gone and that their two older children – Brandon, eleven, and Keenan, eight – will wake up to find no one in the house except Araceli, who until recently had been exclusively a housekeeper and cook and did not assist with the care of the children.
If you’ve read Native Son, you undoubtedly know that in that novel the end of Part I and most of Part II are absolutely excruciating, as Bigger’s fear of his employers and of the larger “white” world in general drive him to increasingly irrational and self-damaging actions. While The Barbarian Nurseries lacks a scene with the intense visceral drama of Bigger’s murder of Mary Dalton, Tobar does create similar suspense as he narrates Araceli’s thought process as she decides how to handle her predicament. She makes many wise choices – she does try to call both Maureen and Scott on their cell phones, for example, but in their haste to depart, Maureen left her phone behind and Scott left his charger behind. Since their departure takes place on a Saturday morning, Araceli cannot reach Scott at his office, and when she does try to call him there on Monday she finds that he has called in sick. She is terrified of the police, both because she is an illegal immigrant and has developed an instinct to avoid contact with law enforcement officials and because she has heard horror stories from other immigrant friends about children being placed in foster care – a fate she dreads for the Torres-Thompson children. She is furious with her employers for leaving the home in her hands without so much as a note or a phone call, but it never really occurs to her that the authorities might take her side and recognize the irresponsibility of her wealthy employers. Having been raised in a world that values community and family, Araceli (who doesn’t drive) also laments the fact that in American suburbia, there are no relatives or neighbors nearby that she can call upon for help: “She could hear the air conditioning turn off suddenly in the home next door… leaving a disconcerting silence that soon took on an idiotic, satirical quality, as if she were standing not in a real neighborhood but rather on a stage set crafted to represent vacant American suburbia. Why is it that you almost never see anyone out here? What goes on in these luxurious boxes that keeps people inside?” (133).
By Monday, Araceli has still received no contact from her employers, and her food supply is running out. The plan she develops in the face of these circumstances is a logical and responsible one, but it is also an impractical and naïve one that is hampered by Araceli’s unfamiliarity with certain American customs. Araceli has long been fascinated by a photograph of Scott Torres’ father as a young man in the 1950’s – a photo that is framed in the family’s living room. Araceli has met this man – John Torres – once or twice, but she also knows that he has been banished from contact with his grandchildren for the last couple of years for reasons she does not know. She recognizes the young man in the photo as culturally connected to his Mexican roots – roots that Scott Torres has quite intentionally abandoned. Araceli takes the photograph out of its frame and finds a Los Angeles address written on the back. Using her own Mexican family as a guide, she assumes that once he had settled at this address in Los Angeles, he would have stayed there forever, adding new wings to his home as needed to reflect growing prosperity and to accommodate a growing family. It does not occur to her that Americans are more likely to move from house to house many times throughout their adult lives and that the feeling of being deeply rooted to land and property is fairly alien to many Americans. Araceli packs suitcases for the boys, takes her own stash of reserve cash, and leaves to take the boys to downtown L.A., where she will ask directions to the address on the back of the photograph.
You can probably make some good guesses about what happens. After an all-day journey involving suburban buses, two different trains, city buses, and a great deal of walking, Araceli and the boys arrive at what was once John Torres’ address to find that not only is their grandfather not there but that the neighborhood has disintegrated into a nightmare of graffiti, barred windows, shady liquor stores, and drug deals on corners. Araceli does find a kind Salvadoran woman who has boys the same age as Brandon and Keenan, and she allows the three travelers to sleep on her floor. (In one of the many ironies of this novel, Araceli’s Mexican culture and Spanish language probably save all three of them on many occasions, as Spanish speakers of all ages, national origins, and stations on the economic and social hierarchy repeatedly reach out and help them, while her attempts to seek help from white America simply produce an echoing silence.) In what I think is a really nice touch on Tobar’s part (in spite of my complaints about his use of omniscient narration – which I still plan to get to in a minute), much of this section of the novel is narrated through the eyes of eleven year-old Brandon, an avid reader of fantasy novels in whose eyes the realities of inner-city Los Angeles seem like something out of a post-apocalyptic fantasy world. When he sees a homeless encampment from the window of the train, he believes that he has stumbled into the world of a series of books called The Saga of the Fire-Swallowers, in which the villains are “a cult of ragged men and boys who engaged in the ritual eating of flames before and after battle” and which are “all meant to be an allegory about the cruelty and demagoguery of the modern age, and its imagery drew heavily from the outrages of the twentieth century, so much so, and so realistically, that the sharp-eyed Brandon had long ago concluded that the story was not entirely the product of the author’s imagination” (166).
This book is, among other things, an excellent advertisement for any number of works of children’s literature. You know what I started reading immediately after I finished this novel? The Narnia series. Yes, really.
I’m going to summarize the rest of the book quickly: Scott and Maureen eventually return home, of course, and they call the police and report that their children are missing (fudging the details of their fight and their dual abandonments of their children, of course). The media is notified and an Amber alert is issued, and when Araceli and the boys see themselves on TV they immediately call Scott and Maureen. The police are dispatched to pick up Brandon and Keenan, and once she knows the police are on their way, Araceli leaves the boys with a local Mexican-American politician (with whom she and the boys have just spent their second night on the road) and leaves in order to avoid confronting the American immigration authorities. In a scene that is reminiscent of the end of Part II of Native Son, Araceli is caught and tackled by the police (in a chase that is filmed and broadcast on nationwide TV), and brought to a detention facility for questioning.
Everything that I’ve narrated so far takes place in the first half of the novel. There is much more, of course, and the book is compelling throughout. I’ll hold off on telling you what else happens, except to say that, unlike Native Son, this book does have a “happy” ending, a fact that made me think a lot about the Aristotelian definition of a comedy. This novel is not “comic” in the modern sense, although it does contain moments of mockery and satire, but it does beg its readers to think about the traditional definition of a comic plot – one in which the values of the society from which the work emerges are challenged but ultimately upheld. In this kind of comedy, the reader or audience is supposed to feel a sort of anxiety or stress during most of the narrative because it should seem as if “something not right” is going to happen, but then we are supposed to feel relieved and even sort of euphoric when the ending reveals that order has been upheld. Once it became clear to me that this book was headed toward a happy ending, I thought about the comic plot structure and found myself asking an interesting question – what exactly are the values of the society from which this book emerges? The world it describes is my world – it even takes place in my home state – and I have been a bit of a CNN junkie over the past couple of years, and the debates about immigration and poverty are familiar to me, and I know that these are topics on which many, many Americans have strong feelings – yet I honestly don’t know if it’s possible to determine what “society” would like to see happen at the end of this novel. Do we want Araceli convicted of kidnapping and child endangerment? Scott and Maureen convicted of abandonment, their children farmed out to foster homes? Scott convicted of spousal abuse? Araceli found innocent of the criminal charges but deported back to Mexico? I know that I found the end of this novel as Tobar wrote it to be uplifting and reassuring – it upheld my values, I suppose, although I would have liked it better if the social worker who tells Maureen and Scott that Brandon shouldn’t be reading The Catcher in the Rye had been eaten by a shark – but as a nation and as a society, is it even possible to write a comic plot on matters like these?
And finally – I did promise you a bit of a grumpy-old-lady riff on omniscient narration, so here goes. Please know that while I am going to focus on my critique of Tobar’s novel, this author certainly not alone in his sloppy use of this technique, and I have found myself getting frustrated by almost every contemporary novel I’ve read lately. It seems to be almost mandatory among novelists these days to confuse omniscient narration with a shifting third-person-limited point of view – and then to shift badly and awkwardly back and forth between the two. I believe that Tobar is trying to write in the shifting third person, meaning that he tells different parts of his story from different characters’ points of view. This is a valid technique that is used well in novels like Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. The problem is that Tobar (and many other contemporary authors like him) takes this shifting point of view as a license to engage in omniscient narration, which is also a valid technique but is exceedingly difficult to do well (I have a vague memory of the fact that one of best examples of omniscient narration managed well is in Anna Karenina, which Jill and I will be reading for the AP challenge in a couple of months, so I’ll keep my eyes open for some good examples of this technique in this novel and will follow up). In the shifting third person, the novel as a whole is told from a variety of perspectives, but each individual section must adhere to the vocabulary, linguistic patterns, level of knowledge, and maturity of its narrator. Earlier I quoted a passage in which Brandon describes a homeless camp in the terms of the fantasy novels he’s read, and that was a great move on Tobar’s part. But the same passage also includes this: “In truth, Brandon never should have been allowed to read the Fire-Swallower books, given their graphic descriptions of scorched-earth warfare, including the slaughter of entire villages and their children with blades forged from various metals” (166). Do you see the problem? The sentence begins with “in truth,” but whose truth does the statement reveal? Not Brandon’s, who later in the same paragraph finds it “undeniably cool to possess knowledge forbidden to eleven year-olds who were not as precocious readers as he” (166). The judgment about the appropriateness of Brandon’s reading material could come from Araceli, who later tells Brandon, “You read too much” (167), but I think it more likely comes from Tobar and is supposed to represent that “voice of society” that is supposed to be at the heart of comedy. But this is a move into omniscient narration that is jarring and awkward and inappropriate here, and the novel is full of moments like these when Tobar intrudes on his characters’ visions of their world.
Robert Frost famously categorized writing free verse as “playing tennis without a net,” and point of view is one of the most important “nets” that give guidance to the fiction writer. One reason that Native Son is such a brilliant novel is that Wright manages to provide a rich, complete picture of the many strata of 1940’s Chicago without once veering from the highly limited perspective of Bigger Thomas. He uses dramatic irony and makes inferences that he trusts his readers to understand, but he also takes what I think is the significant risk of letting his protagonist be wrong. Bigger sometimes is painfully wrong about his society, and Wright trusts that his reader will evaluate Bigger correctly even if the entire novel is told through his eyes. Tobar isn’t quite there yet in his willingness to trust his readers. He lets Araceli be wrong sometimes, but instead of staying with her perspective and letting the consequences of her misunderstandings play themselves out, he shifts the point of view to another character and/or interjects some wisdom in his own voice, which in my opinion is the equivalent of taking the net away from the tennis game or taking the skeleton out of a body, and at these moments I do think the novel loses some of its integrity. I do think that a true shifting third-person point of view (without the moments of omniscience) would be a valid way to tell this story, and it’s true that I wouldn’t want to lose the parts of the novel that are told from Brandon’s point of view. This novel is culturally important and tells a story that our world needs to hear – and the sloppiness of its point of view does not change this. Its language is quite stunning at times (OK, one more quotation: “I am a member of the tribe of chemical cleansers, of brooms, of machetes and shovels, and they are the people of pens and keyboards. We are people whose skin bakes in the sun, while they labor and live in fluorescent shadows, covering their skins with protective creams when they venture outside”  – isn’t that beautiful?), and its major and minor characters are drawn with insight and sensitivity. Tobar is obviously a prodigious talent, and I will continue to seek out his work and will await his next book with interest. But I would love to see this author take the lead in returning to a more disciplined use of the third person point of view, since in a well-executed story or novel told from a single perspective the tension between the grand and sweeping and universal and the intense subjectivity of the limited point of view can provide an irony as rich and as compelling as the many social and interpersonal ironies that give shape to The Barbarian Nurseries.