"Two Half-Filipino brothers can pass for white, their mother cannot; painful conflicts are in store for everybody in this complex exploration of racism in California, starting in 1993, a year after the Rodney King Riots."
--New York Times Editors,
Notable Books of the Year
Classes and Book Groups
(Review excerpts. For full text, click links below)
"Heartbreaking... American Son is a gripping book." --Aleksandar Hemon, New York Times Book Review.
"Roley writes with assurance, grace and insight, and he plays expertly with our perceptions and expectations...And Roley is one young writer with something important to say: he has fused a coming-of-age story with a variant on the American immigrant saga, and the result is both explosive and illuminating." --Jonathan Kirsch, Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Reads like an emotional live wire. Roley's terse, raw prose gets right to the point, leaving no questions unanswered about the pain that can be inflicted between family and the crushing confusion of immigrant identity...One of the most stunningly affecting and original voices in the past few years...A frightening and unapologetic look at both the immigrant and bi-racial experience, introducing us to a cast of original characters who have been brought to life with prose so sharp it hurts." --Neela Banerjee, Asian Week.
"The triangle of Gabe, Tomas and their shy helpless Filipina mother (their American dad is long gone) creates a multihued prism for looking at issues of parenting and heritage, aspiration and assimilation, birth order and rivalry, pride and embarrassment." -- Mark Rozzo, LA Times (An LA Times Best Book of 2001)
"Hard-hitting and brash, this debut novel takes a cold, clear-eyed look at the American immigrant experience...This is a powerhouse story of vulnerable strangers living in a brutal, alien land told with stylish restraint, bare-knuckled realism and tender yet tough clarity." -- Publisher's Weekly
"Touching, disturbing" -- Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, Book Dragon Notable Book
"Roley's sparse minimalism renders masterfully the moral desert in which Gabe and Tomas exist...Roley...captures the angst of young boyhood memorably and ably, set against backgrounds of lyrical beauty." --North American Review
"The emotional effect of this build up, in one brilliantly executed scene after another, is extraordinary. American Son combines hard-hitting power with literary grace and sensitivity." -- Nicholas Jose, novelist and Pacific Rim Prize judge.
"Penetrating...Roley explores this omnipresent yet usually invisible story of contemporary American immigrant life with an easy exactitude and a dry, unmerciful eye...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...Clean, beautifully understated prose." --Suzy Hansen, Salon.com (a Best Book of May)
"In bare and muscular prose, American Son deftly seduces with this emotional yet unsentimental coming-of-age journey. Enter the unnerving world of Gabe and his cultural swirl of barrio attack dogs and Hollywood high-rollers, backwater California truckstops and the devoted Filipina mother he is ashamed of. Roley opens a window to an Asian America that is rarely acknowledged and perhaps even unrecognizable; his is the searingly honest voice of an authentic American son." --Helen Zia, author of Asian American Dreams
"Roley never judges his characters but rather shows the pain and anger that propel their actions. His clipped and poetic style serves the novel well, and readers will be compelled to follow this tale to its violent and ambiguous conclusion." --Brendan Dowling, Booklist
"Gabe's narrative succeeds in displaying the kind of cultural isolation that breeds anger, turning a smart, quiet boy into an avenging victim despite his wish to do the right thing...A voice to watch." --Kirkus Reviews
AAAS BOOK AWARDS
Prose Book Prize Awardee
American Son: A Novel, by Brian Ascalon Roley (W.W. Norton & Company,2001).
"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."
Karen Har-Yen Chow
From: Journal of Asian American Studies
Volume 6, Number 2, June 2003
John Hopkins University Press
LINKS TO SOME BOOKS WITH REFERENCES TO BRIAN ASCALON ROLEY'S WORK:
Inhuman Citizenship: Traumatic Enjoyment and Asian American Literature
by Juliana Chang (Author)
Unfastened: Globality and Asian North American Narratives,
by Eleanor Ty
Beyond the Nation: Diasporic Filipino Literature and Queer Reading (Sexual Cultures),
by Martin Joseph Ponce
Transnational Asian American Literature: Sites and Transits,
by Shirley Geok-Lin Lim (Editor), John Blair Gamber (Editor), Stephen Hong Sohn (Editor), Gina Valentino (Editor)
Racial Asymmetries: Asian American Fictional Worlds (American Literature Initiative),
by Stephen Hong Sohn
Passing Interest: Racial Passing in US Novels, Memoirs, Television and Film, 1990-2010 (SUNY Series in Multiethnic Literature),
by Julie Cary Nedrad
The Cambridge History of Asian American Literature. by Rajini Srikanth (Editor) and Min Song (Editor)
The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles,
by Kevin R. McNamara
The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature, Vol. 1
by Jay Parini (Editor)
The Interethnic Imagination: Roots and Passages in Contemporary Asian American Fiction (Imagining the Americas),
by Caroline Rody
The Children of 1965: On Writing, and Not Writing, as an Asian American,
by Min Hyoung Song
Across Generations: Immigrant Families in America,
by Nancy Foner
Multiracial Male Masculinity: A Critical Mixed Race Analysis of
Brian Ascalon Roley’s American Son,
by Kevin Escudero
Asian American Literature: Discourses and Pedagogies
3 (2012) 80-87.
Abjection, Masculinity, and Violence in Brian Roley's "American Son" and Han Ong's "Fixer Chao," by Eleanor Ty
Vol. 29, No. 1, Filipino American Literature (Spring, 2004), pp. 119-136
Published by: Oxford University Press
LINKS TO FULL REVIEWS
Jonathan Kirsch's Los Angeles Times Book Review
Mark Rozzo's Los Angeles Times Book Review
Asian Week Review
New York Times Notable Books of 2001
Pacific Rim Review by Nicholas Jose
Publishers Weekly Review
Asian Week Interview of Brian Roley