WHENEVER THE QUESTION COMES UP as to why there hasn't been a quintessential novel about Los Angeles, the notion that the place is just too diffuse is bandied about, as if writers are incapable of writing a novel which can address a territory larger than, say, the island of Manhattan. Certainly there are novels that lay claim to parts of L.A., be they classics, like Nathanael West'sThe Day of the Locust or Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run?, or contemporary works, like Janet Fitch's Paint it Black or Eric Puchner's Model Home (to say nothing of the city's rich tradition of noir and crime fiction). But none has ever seemed to capture the paradox-ridden profundity of the grit and the glamour, the farm worker and the starlet, the 405 North and the 5 South, the 10 West and the 60 East, the Pacific Coast Highway, and the tracks filled with empty Metrolink trains. There is the Los Angeles on the maps; the Los Angeles that is actually Orange County; the sprawling, urban Los Angeles that only stops when you hit the Salton Sea; the Los Angeles that exists on television screens in other states, where the surf comes right up to your front yard.
Diffuse? Certainly. Impossible to represent in its fullness? Certainly not, as Héctor Tobar proves with his astonishing second novel, The Barbarian Nurseries. Tobar, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Los Angeles Times, has crafted a novel that examines the smallest people — both literally and figuratively — who populate our shared landscape, while casting a wide view on the culture created behind the walls of gated communities, within the vast inland sea of interracial bedroom communities, and on the lost streets beneath the highways, where entire lives play out in the shadows of passing SUVs.
These worlds are viewed chiefly through the eyes of Araceli Ramirez, Mexican servant to Scott and Maureen Torres-Thompson and their three young children. Araceli is the last remaining household worker for the Torres-Thompsons (the novel is filled with hyphenates: proof, it would seem, that the alleged melting pot of Southern California more closely resembles a too-hot double boiler), the rest having been let go when Scott realized that the family's personal recession was not going to rebound. It's an uptown problem: While they live in a seven-figure home in the exclusive Laguna Rancho Estates, can afford to send their children to private school, and enjoy all the trappings of opulence, Scott's family is, if not broke, quietly slipping into the middle-class:
Two weeks earlier, he had quickly calculated what he paid the gardener over the course of a year and come to a surprisingly large four-figure number. The problem with these Mexican gardeners was that you had to pay them in cash; you had to slap actual greenbacks into their callused hands at the end of the day. The only way around it was to go out there in the sun and do it yourself, because bringing these hardworking Mexicans into your home was expensive, and in the end all those hours the Mexicans worked without complaint added up.
For Scott, the Torres half of his family's equation, getting out and cutting his own lawn is not such a bad thing: it's almost a reconnection to his heritage, his own father being a master behind a lawn mower. But that's ancient history now; the only La...read more