“American Son” by Brian Ascalon Roley

In a searing look at the immigrant experience, two half-Filipino brothers navigate a California of small-time thieves, Mexican gangsters and attack dogs trained using Nazi techniques.

Topics: Books,

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.

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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.

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Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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