Let’s talk about Brian Ascalon Roley’s American Son. I picked it up at the last Hattiesburg Book Exchange, which was organized by a friend, and I can honestly say, it’s good! It’s an engrossing read; it drew me in and had me interested to the last page.
The story revolves around Gabe, a Filipino-American boy, his older brother (Tomas), and (less so, but also) their Filipino mother. The small family live in LA, barely scraping by. Gabe is a teenager, still in school, while drop-out Tomas helps support the family by training attack dogs for celebrities and Hollywood people. Both Gabe and Tomas are pale enough that they could pass for white — and Gabe often does. It’s easier, he finds, though he seems uncomfortable even as he chooses to play along.
Written in sections, the books has two main components: the story as told by Gabe, and a set of letters from the boys’ uncle, addressed to the mother. The uncle urges her again and again to send the boys back so they can learn discipline and “Asian virtues” (201) before it’s too late. His letters become more urgent as the novel progresses, until at the end he explains he has about given up Tomas as a hopeless case.
Where Gabe alternates between wanting to fit in and wanting to be accepted as who he is, Tomas does his best to appear not white, or Filipino / Asian, but Mexican. He drives the type of car popular with Mexican gangs, dresses like a gang member, wears a large gold cross on his chest and gang tattoos on his arms. His entire back is covered with a large tattoo of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Tomas doesn’t just dress the part, he is actively involved in stealing (and selling) stereos; he carries a gun, and is apparently also involved with drugs to some extent or other. The gangs in their neighborhood are angry with him, and the boys’ mother (oblivious to Tomas’ involvement) has to sleep in the back of the house because of the frequent drive-by shootings.
Gabe is a smart young man, a good student (at least at the beginning of the novel) with high grades in Math. He’s the quiet type, in part because saying the wrong thing in front of his brother usually results in a beating. When Gabe decides to run away, he sells Tomas’ favorite dog and steals his car. His plans are only half-thought-out and when things go wrong, Gabe is found and returns home. This is a major plot point because now, Gabe is in Tomas’ debt. Tomas makes Gabe work even harder than before, to help with the training and keeping of the dogs, and he starts taking him along to do his dirty work.
Gabe also feels that he owes his mother — so he tries to show her more respect. He no longer asks her not to pick him up in front of the school, because he doesn’t want her to know he’s ashamed of her. One day, she rear-ends another car as she’s about to pick him up. The damage is minimal, but she has no insurance. The other driver, whom Gabe describes as a ‘yoga mom’ — white, and obviously wealthy — humiliates her in front of Gabe and his fellow students.
When the yoga mom keeps calling, insulting the boys and the mother, and insisting they pay 800 USD for repairs, there is a major shift in the story. Tomas realizes that Gabe is angry, and Gabe himself realizes it too. Tomas decides to make use of Gabe’s anger: he takes Gabe to the yoga mom’s house and tells him to break into the car. When the yoga mom’s son — who knows Gabe from school — surprises them, Tomas decides it’s time for Gabe to grow up. He gets Gabe to beat up the boy.
Here’s the shift: “But now [the yoga mom’s son] is respectful, his head bowed. And though my stomach wrenches, I feel a rush not of anxiety but of confidence. In a scary way I realize I like it. Strangely, that only makes my stomach worse” (215). Up to this point, Gabe gets so anxious when he’s out with his brother that he throws up, and that nausea, a sense of wrong-doing, is still there — but it has been joined by something new: Confidence. The one thing that Gabe has lacked throughout the whole novel. This is a turning point in the relationship of the two brothers — although there’s less than a page of text after this incident, it is clear that Tomas becomes gentler, more kind toward Gabe as a consequence of the encounter.
This book was really interesting to me in a number of ways. The ways in which the boys choose to define or not define themselves by their appearance, the way cultural stereotypes are played out against each other, the shifts in the relationship between Gabe and his mother as well as Gabe and Tomas — there’s lots to discover here. The instances where Gabe refuses to speak up vs the instances where he finally does identify as who and what he is. The moment when he refuses to identify his mother as his mother (he says she’s the maid). The tension between the mother and the uncle, as well as the complex relationship between the mother and the Philippines —