2014's fast food atrocities
Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.
Brian Ascalon Roley’s penetrating first novel, “American Son,” follows two teenage brothers, the sons of a Filipino woman who left her country and married an abusive American man who wanted someone “meek and obedient.” The elder brother, Tomas, “is really half white, half Filipino but dresses like a Mexican, and it troubles our mother that he does this. She cannot understand why if he wants to be something he is not he does not at least try to look white.” The younger son, Gabriel, who narrates the novel, is the good son, shy and observant, and suffocating beneath his brother’s mocking eye and his mother’s expectations for obedience and good grades. When these burdens collide and Gabe questions his brother’s actions, Tomas beats him into humiliation or cuts him with a broken beer bottle, scarring Gabe’s chest so he will not forget.
Roley explores this omnipresent yet usually invisible story of contemporary American immigrant life with an easy exactitude and a dry, unmerciful eye. In “American Son,” the first generation attempts to guide their children by sending them to Catholic schools and giving them a vague sense of tradition. Yet it’s not always enough. What’s most memorable, and most disturbing, is how Roley subtly renders the difference between those who make the journey to America and those who are born out of their hopes.
At the beginning of each of the novel’s three sections, a letter from Betino, the boys’ prominent uncle still living in the Philippines, details a shinier, easier life there, far away from Mexican hoodlums and the Los Angeles ghettos. His letters are leaden with disappointment, both in his nephews for their wayward behavior and in his sister for her determination to stay in America: “Everyone remembers the sight of you with those [rosary] beads in the chapel. We all thought you would become a nun, but instead you became an American!” Ika, small and soft-spoken and working two jobs, watches her sons with curiosity and alarm, gently urging them to acknowledge the dream she cannot fulfill alone.
The boys, who have all the options a glittery metropolis can offer, wrestle with their disdain for and awe of the white and rich. They disrespect their mother, yet love and protect her. They translate their crimes into gifts; Tomas replaces Ika’s plastic sink handles with stolen chrome fixtures. Yet Tomas runs a legitimate business, too; he raises attack dogs with German names like Greta and Heinrich. In a brilliant and scathing sendup of Hollywood frivolity, Tomas claims he trains the dogs with Nazi techniques and then sells them to wealthy producer types for thousands of dollars: “They are cheap nasty dogs and not even the best guard dogs, but ever since they started killing children everyone seems to want one.”
Gabe, defeated after a beating from his brother, steals Tomas’ white Mexican gangster Oldsmobile and takes off for Northern California. Gradually, Roley reveals Gabe’s torment over his own ethnicity and his shames for his mother’s dark skin and Asian eyes. Through the more vulnerable Gabe, alone in a whiter world of small-town California, we can understand why his older, angrier brother might have started stealing stereos and flaunting full-body tattoos. With clean, beautifully understated prose and a chin-thrust-forward attitude, “American Son” suggests that Gabriel’s own self-loathing and alienation prevent him from grasping the opportunities laid out for him by his mother and lead him to a life of violence he’s known too well at the hand of Tomas. Yet Roley’s characters don’t seem to be merely taking the easy way out. Rather, the life they choose seems harder and tougher than what their mother hoped for them, and therefore more authentically their own.
Our next pick: An Israeli speechwriter blinded by torturers
Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.More Suzy Hansen.
Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.
KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.
Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.
Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.
Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.