It’s ten o’clock, mom’s in her chones, and all’s wrong with the world.
Mexican American novelist and essayist Gilb (Gritos, 2003, etc.) sets this novel, an understated exploration of race and its discontents, in a grimy border city in the recent past; the time is never spelled out and the cars and cholo clothes are timeless, but since “some cops pulled this loco black man over and he got whipped on, [and] it went out onto all the streets,” it’s safe to put it around 1994. As the reader soon sees, the mood is ugly. Sonny Bravo is a smart 15-year-old kid who wants to be good and has a hurting soul, but events are conspiring against him as surely as they conspire against Johnny Cade in The Outsiders—a kindred book in many ways. Sonny’s vivacious, semi-clad mother decides to improve her fortunes by marrying an Anglo building contractor, and off they go to an apartment complex called Las Flores, the flowers of the title. It’s no improvement; the mean streets get no less mean for Sonny, who now has black and white neighbors to contend with. His stepfather takes to drinking with a redneck construction worker named Bud, who lets no opportunity for stereotype or slur go unexplored, while mom endures. Sonny wanders between cultures, adding high-school French (“J’aime beaucoup les hamburgers”) to the mix, uncomfortable inside his own skin. It’s a recipe for a bruising, and it’s up to Sonny to keep that skin in one piece while steering clear of trouble and wishing for a world in which everyone would just get along.
Gilb’s prose sometimes requires a glossary of the nonbilingual (or -trilingual), as with sentences such as, “Los blacks aren’t shorty indios como nuestra gente,” and his narrative moves toward a resolution that, like the world, leaves all sorts of loose ends hanging.