ASSOCIATION OF ASIAN AMERICAN STUDIES 2003 Literature Award
"Heartbreaking...American Son is a gripping book" -- New York Times Notable Book
Brian Ascalon Roley’s American Son is a short novel that packs a wallop, like a boxer who strikes hard in the first line and doesn’t let up with unexpected punches. As in another memorable Asian American novel that features boxing, Milton Murayama’s All I Asking For Is My Body, this is an intense local story from the perspective of a young adolescent protagonist, a perspective that is subtly shaded by a tone of irony, lament, and wistfulness that seems as if it comes from the protagonist’s “older” self looking back on his youth. As in Murayama’s novel, this narrative’s main achievement is how it conveys all of this young man’s emotional complexities in spare but powerful prose, and how it ties those complexities to social conditions. Like the archangel whose name he shares, the protagonist Gabriel is a messenger, albeit an unwitting one, for the agents of contemporary suburban unrest. The “inner city” downtown core is most typically L.A.’s most sensationalized terrain of tension, but American Son exposes the darkness that runs through working class to privileged suburbs as well.
“In the beginning of the novel, Gabriel is the “good” son, the obedient and quiet, studious one, who always listens to his mother and acts as a character-foil to his “bad” older brother Tomas. Tomas’ social transgressions from middle-class conservatism are literally writ large over his body, to the dismay of his devoutly Catholic first-generation immigrant Filipino mother and white-collar professional relatives. Tomas sports a shaved head, tans his skin to a dark brown hue, openly smokes pot, and wears white tank “wifebeater” t-shirts that reveal large menacing tattoos of the Virgen de Guadalupe on his trim muscular body. In short, he physically carries himself like the Mexican American gangsters he identifies with. He is also, as the oldest male in their fatherless household, alternately Gabriel’s tormentor and protector, the one who both forces him into and sometimes shields him from the violence of a life of thievery, drug dealing, and other petty crimes. By the end of the novel, we see Gabriel disturbingly internalizing his initial terror and transforming into a man who relishes enacting violence on others.
“What makes all of this intriguing is that Gabriel and Tomas are mixed heritage children, of a Filipina American mother and a white American father, who presumably have been phenotypically “blessed” (namely, with light hair and skin color, height over 6 feet in Tomas’ case—enough to “pass” for white), and with other advantages that would enable them to aspire to loftier ambitions than life as L.A. thugs. Although their father is absent and they remember him mostly as an alcoholic and racist abuser of their mother, their upbringing has been chaperoned by the patronage and concern of responsible and upper-middle class relatives on both sides of their family. However, through living in an economically and racially split world where they are exposed to the mistreatment their brown Filipina mother experiences on a regular basis, one of the quickest lessons they learn is that money is the only reliable weapon against social subjugation. Tomas then turns to crime and guard dog training/selling as his means monetarily to provide luxuries for his mother and act out his anger at the many indignities she suffers as a low-wage earning, first-generation, immigrant single mother. Such indignities include the shame she faces even from her own brother, who chastises her for bringing her sons to America’s moral depravities and whose only suggested solution to their problems is to bring them back under the rule of his own authoritarian household in the Philippines.
“A second noteworthy theme is that of the late twentieth-century psychological and social effects of postcolonial malaise and globalization. While their mother entertains fantasies of returning to the Philippines permanently, even as she complains about its lack of certain American modern conveniences during her visits back home; Gabriel and Tomas share no desire to return. However, their experiences and identities as Americans are profoundly shaped by still feeling and being reminded of the “outsiderness” that permeates their lives, especially in Filipino cultural practices, food, and language that they still engage with on occasion. And, their “brown” mother with her heavily accented English is, for Gabriel, a daily and strongly ambivalent reminder of his shame and fear of unacceptance.
“The clash of race and class in 1990s Los Angeles may have become, in the wake of the 1992 L.A. Riots, a clichéd theme for a coming-of-age contemporary “ethnic” American story, but few narratives have so realistically and movingly portrayed the subterranean longing, drive, and cruelty that lurks beneath L.A.’s languid and soulless sunny landscape.
The reader is made aware of the stark racial and economic stratification of L.A.’s urban and suburban topography, but is also seduced by the beauty of the novel’s simple and poetic narration.
“Thus, the sum of all these aspects is a highly provocative and teachable book that offers many levels of engagement: literary, philosophical, cultural, and sociological. Students respond to these characters and their situations with recognition and great interest, since the pressures and demands of conforming, performing, masking anxieties, compromising values, and struggling to find oneself are issues we all wrestle with in a rapidly shifting and unstable world."