OCTOBER 18, 2011
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 Latin flavor in Scott’s life is the hue of his skin when the sun hits it just so, and his house on the hill is as distant from his childhood home in working-class South Whittier, metaphorically speaking, as Mexico City. From the outside his lifestyle is strictly high-class Orange County, but all he really wants to do is sit inside playing video games, to lose himself in the technology he used to love, back when he and Maureen were principals in a tech startup that later would be sold into corporate oblivion. The passion and impetuousness of that time has departed both Scott and Maureen, along with their savings, and yet they still attempt to keep up, throwing an elaborate theme party for their son’s birthday, inviting their friends from the good old days to eat Araceli’s delicious food. ??For a few stolen hours, it’s the picture of idyllic domesticity, until one of their guests — Scott’s former partner in the old tech firm, a gregarious friend they all call the Big Man — drunkenly points out that their once-prized garden is unkempt and dying. Suddenly the picture starts to look more and more like Dorian Gray’s, which sends Maureen into an existential tumble:
In an instant the rage left Maureen’s face, and she unwittingly presented an image of wan surrender as she folded her bare and sunscreen-protected arms across her camisole and turned away, shaken. All of her cutting, drawing, gluing, weeding, and arranging had been for naught. What a farce. Her papier-mâché creations were splitting apart, too, and her sons were hitting each other inside that stupid castle, and she had forgotten to clean the pool, and her guests were swimming in filthy water. It’s all tumbling around me, but do I even care?
Over the next few days, the embarrassment of this moment compounds for Maureen, until she makes a fateful decision to spend thousands of dollars the family doesn’t have on an entirely new garden: a desert landscape (the only natural thing in the region, as it happens). This, in turn, leads Scott and Maureen to a cataclysmic fight, a moment that, in its surprising and dreadful reality, brings to mind another great novel of domestic discord, Richard Yates’sRevolutionary Road. Watching other people fight can be embarrassing, or it can bring about that raw realization that people you think you know aren’t what they seem. As Araceli witnesses the conclusion of the fight, her emotions live somewhere in the middle distance. The Torres-Thompsons think their servant is more instrument than person, a silent and sullen, and possibly illegal, alien in their home. Of course they are wrong: Araceli is an educated woman, a promising artist who left Mexico for all the reasons one might expect.
Araceli’s silence is part of her job, while her halting English is a badge of shame. Not speaking English in America, certain politicians would have you believe, is an unconscionable evil, and not speaking English in Orange County could count as treason for those politicians’s followers. Araceli harbors a much more complex series of emotions and desires, of course. This is particularly true when she wakes up the morning after Scott and Maureen’s terrible row to find them gone. Maureen has fled to a spa with her baby, while Scott has departed for a long weekend away with his smitten assistant, as both try to decide what to do with the rest of their lives. Alas, neither Maureen nor Scott has told the other any of this, nor have they told Araceli, who finds herself alone with their two young boys:
Araceli would like to leave, too, but she could not, thanks to the chain that ran back to the house and those two boys anchoring her to this piece of California real estate. She could not run away, or stray too far, because there were children in the home and to leave them alone would be an abdication of responsibility, even if they had been left in Araceli’s care against her will.
Araceli does stay, and so must contend with who she is and isn’t. When one of the young boys demands to be fed, she screams at him, “I am not your mother!” only to find an “unexpected welling of altruism coursing through her veins, a drug that straightened your back and made you feel taller.” After four days alone with the children, Araceli concludes she must locate a responsible party; otherwise, she fears, they’ll end up in foster care. She’s hesitant to call the police, owing to her illegal status, so when she finds an old photo of Scott’s father that has an address on the back, her decision is made; never mind that the photo is decades old:
It was not within Araceli’s experience, or that of most people who had been born and raised in Mexico, that families picked up and moved themselves and abandoned their old properties every few years, in the same way one might discard a dress that had been worn once or twice too often … Either old man Torres himself or someone related to him would be living at this West Thirty-ninth Street address, just as one could find twenty to thirty people connected by blood, marriage, and poor judgment to Araceli at Monte Líbano 210 in Nezahualcóyotl and the adjoining houses.
What comes next, in the second half of the novel, is a moving odyssey that takes Araceli and the boys from their estate, via buses and trains, over cement rivers, through homeless encampments and neighborhoods you’ve heard of but couldn’t find on a map, all in search of a man who (of course) lives nowhere near where they expect to find him because no one stays in one place for very long these days. When Scott and Maureen finally return home from their walkabouts and discover their children and their unknowable Mexican servant are missing, Araceli and the boys wind up in an estate of a different kind, namely the Fourth Estate. You can likely do the math and guess what brings them into the glare of the media, but it’s Tobar’s gift to make every twist and turn feel completely fresh and surprising.
Tobar’s narrative bounces from the main players to characters on the fringe of the story, the journalist within the novelist doing what one might expect: This drama gets sourced from all angles, so that you’re never sure where the final truth will be found. At the heart of this novel there is the simple mystery — what will happen to the children under Araceli’s watch? — surrounded by secondary questions of identity and belonging, of finding out that everything you ever wanted from this life can be a kind of madness. And the second-order mystery: What does it mean to have all of the opportunities to succeed, but not enough guile to realize when tangible success has turned to emotional failure?
The Barbarian Nurseries is a sprawling novel that offers both a meditation on what it means to intersect but never meet, and an examination of people that are not particularly good people, not particularly bad people, just people. Your neighbors, the ones who work for and with you, who tend your lawn and your children; the ones who drive beside you in expensive cars, and live behind guard gates, and who you imagine live better than you do, or — in some cases — live worse. People who make choices that ripple through time, space, and that inexorable place we call home. This is a novel about Los Angeles, and maybe the finest we’ll see for many years. It is also a novel that triumphantly transcends geography and delivers a stirring look at the borders of our expectations, both great and small.