(Editor’s Note: We’ll announce our June Book Club selection–another short story–in this space next week. Remember that for July we’ll be reading Toni Morrison’s Jazz, so consider getting a jump start on it. DD)
Welcome to the WBN
Book Story Club.
“Uncle Rock” is one of many solid pieces in Dagoberto Gilb’s fine collection of stories, Before The End, After The Beginning, but it sits apart from the book and has a character of its own. It appeared in print in The New Yorker well before the book was released or even finished, and in its brevity and the way it crackles with color (especially in the third and final act) it fits snugly inside the book, even as it distinguishes itself as something of a stray. Perhaps it stakes out its own territory most vividly in the way its sly upbeat ending plays out. More on that down the page.
The story proceeds through three tight movements, a fully featured but terse 2,700 words.
The first part of the story introduces Erick, an 11-year-old Mexican American boy living in L.A. in the early ’80s. “Uncle Rock” is essentially a tale about Erick’s place at the center of a swirl of men who approach the boy’s attractive and available mother. The physical movement in this first phase of the story comes from these suitors, as Gilb describes the way they approach Erick’s mother and the long history of pressure the woman has learned to manage. There’s a heaviness in how persistently men appear and make their move. They seem to come from everywhere, and Erick’s mother is constantly being pressed. Erick sits at the center of this solar system, stabbing at his food in cafes where his mother is hit on or killing time in office places where she works, while unreliable, untrue and unworthy men try to cozy up to her.
The men in this story are at best undependable. Other times, they are self-serving or worse. They are sometimes ugly men, and usually men who somehow think they are not acting badly. Gilb is skillful in the way that, without a real word from his main character, he communicates just how little these men fool the young boy.
Erick is essentially silent until the final act of the story, but it’s clear how much he sees and how little he approves. Gilb often seems to be saying something about Mexican American life. The food Erick plays with contains American eggs, Mexican potatoes, and in one passage Gilb quickly positions us for an understanding of Erick’s place in Los Angeles. His mother is from Mexico and sometimes in her struggles to prosper in the United States considers going back. This little bit of exposition almost threatens to be the one piece of the story that seems tacked on. But in making sure we see Erick’s family unit as one foot in Mexico and one foot in the U.S., it’s easy to hop from there to the idea that Gilb constructs Erick as a silent protagonist as a way of saying something about the expected role of Mexican American immigrants here. Erick’s mother is compelled to take what she can get. Erick is expected to say absolutely nothing.
What do you think of Gilb’s decision not to have Erick speak? What does this tell us about the situation, and/or accomplish for the story?
There is one man in the story who isn’t grotesque and malignant, and that’s Roque, an undistinguished but devoted male who surfaces as a serious player in the competition for Erick’s mother. An engineer from Act One comes close to being the man, and then disappears after Erick begins describing him to friends as his new Dad. So when Roque steps up, Erick explains him away as an uncle: “Uncle Rock.”
It’s another sly device of Gilb’s that Uncle Rock, Roque, is essentially the good man, the best man in the story–but what a mild-mannered and grey standout he is. As much as anything else, Roque is distinguished in what he doesn’t do. He doesn’t show off, or wear flashy, showy clothes: “He didn’t have a buzzcut like the men who didn’t like kids,” Gilb writes. He’s kind, like many of the men believed they were being, and if anything you can fault Roque for being “too willing and nice, too considerate, too generous.” This is his worst quality. A strange hero, he excels largely because he isn’t as bad as the others.
His best side, the one thing that makes Roque different, is his devotion to Erick’s mother. “He was there when she asked,” we read, “gone when she asked, back whenever, grateful.”
Like the other men, Roque tries to get through to Erick. He goes just a little further. He takes the boy and his mom to a baseball game.
Roque’s finest moment is in the final lines, where he does nothing but be there. In a baseball stadium full of people, “Roque was the proudest man, full of joy because he was with her.” The most decisive thing Roque does is just keep showing up. That’s actually a very big thing.
What do you think about the men in this story? What about Roque himself? Is his movement to the top of the pile really a good thing for Erick and his Mom? What’s being said here about life in urban America for a Mexican American family?
The story opens up with color and space in the final set, as Erick, his Mom, and Roque arrive at Dodger Stadium. Gilb beautifully paints this symphonic moment, a young boy’s first time to visit a major league baseball park and perhaps see his hero–every Mexican American boy’s hero at the time–Fernando Valenzuela. But we have only a second to breathe in the stadium before an extraordinary thing happens.
Before the little family is even in their bleacher seats, there’s the crack of the bat and the ball flies toward them. Erick’s catch is both a miracle and just a simple extension of his arm. I love this moment: “He had to stand and move and stretch his arms and want that ball until it hit his bare hands and stayed there.”
But it’s Erick’s act in the final lines that really matters. After the game, the men on the opposing team’s bus (the Phillies) take the ball from Erick and offer to sign it. In passing it back to him, they also pass him a note to give to his mother. In a story full of bad men, we leave disgusted by a bus full of men who would use a child in the midst of the best day of his life to seduce his mother back to their hotel. It’s what Erick does with the note that provides the final beat of the piece. Erick’s act seems like a heroic and protective one, but it’s nuanced. There’s a melancholy sliver in this seemingly upbeat conclusion.
What do you think of Erick’s final act and this outcome? Do you feel, as I did, that the high note this story ends on has a grayness to it? Talk about that grayness.
Use the space below to add your two cents, and I’ll drop by from time to time and kick it around with you.
Jeff Questad is a writer and Black Sabbath enthusiast in Austin, Texas. You can (and should) follow him on Twitter.