• On Dagoberto Gilb’s “Uncle Rock”

    Posted Posted by Guest Writer in WBN News & Events     Comments 38 comments
    May
    23

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    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.

     

    MOVEMENT ONE:

    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?

     

    MOVEMENT TWO:

    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?

     

    MOVEMENT THREE:

    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.

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    Alex Winthrop

    Erick is still looking for his “voice” in his new/adopted country? He doesn’t feel like he has any agency in his life. Also, he realizes that if one of these suitors does win out, he and his mother could be uprooted at any moment. Like, if that engineer (for example) had won the race, and then was suddenly transferred to Atlanta, Erick’s mom–and hence Erick–would have gone, too. Erick feels like he doesn’t have any say, metaphorically, so why bother having any literal say?

    Beetlejuice

    I was cheating a bit on that one, Alex. I can’t locate it at this second – it might have been in the author’s notes in the O.Henry – but I am almost sure I remember Gilb saying of his story that he made Erick so silent because Latinos in America are expected to have no voice. That’s a very consistent theme in Chicano lit. So I think what you say is exactly right at the story level. It’s a good observation and you made me understand a little more about that passage where Gilb talks about how his mother… Read more »

    Alex Winthrop

    Also I appreciate the trip down memory lane. Pedro Guerrero? Garry Maddox? Steve Carlton? I can envision their baseball cards.

    I will read this story again and see if I have any new thoughts after your fine post. I read it two weeks ago, so it’s a little foggy.

    Jose Skinner

    I hadn’t really thought of the silence of many Latino characters being related to the fact that Latinos aren’t expected to have a voice in U.S. society. Good point. Of course, Junot Diaz’s characters can be pretty loquacious…

    David Duhr

    Note too that Erick doesn’t technically speak until the story’s final lines, in which he uses “a full voice.” Why is that?

    Heather Nelson

    Excellent thoughts. I seems that Erick feels like he has the most agency when his mom is out on dates with these men. he can eat his ice cream and watch TV, essentially doing what he wants. And I’m not so sure that he cares if they pick up and move, as long as it’s to a nicer neighborhood, based off of this: “He did want to move, but he wished that it weren’t because of Uncle Rock.”

    Jeff, Gilb’s words offer great insight into the reason for Erick’s silence, thanks!

    Heather Nelson

    *It seems

    Jeff Questad

    I have no idea why my comment is being listed as coming from “Beetlejuice.” That is a complete mystery. Why do good things happen to not exactly good but well meaning people?

    JQ

    Heather Nelson

    Haha, I was wondering about the “Beetlejuice.” I thought you were experimenting with awesome nicknames – Why’d you go and ruin it?

    As for the piece, as soon as I have a moment I’ll post my thoughts.

    David Duhr

    Did you fix that, somehow? Because this comment comes up as Jeff Questad. WTF?

    David Duhr

    We can close the book on this Beetlejuice mystery: https://www.writebynight.net/writing-help/hands-off-my-books/

    Scroll to the comments. That’s what you get for trying to be cute.

    Jeff Questad

    Don’t you have more important work to do than scrolling thru your site looking for signs of me being an idiot?

    But thank you for pointing that out.

    Q

    David Duhr

    It’s not like it takes a lot of work. Oh, snap!

    Heather Nelson

    If it took a lot of work, David wouldn’t do it!

    Hmm, I think I may have put you both down, there.

    *runs*

    Heather Nelson

    Ha!

    Laura Roberts

    The men in this story, where can I begin? I really like that it’s not the mother describing her horrible suitors, but her child. He knows they’re unworthy of her time, but for different reasons than she might offer. As Alex mentioned, he has no say in it, so he keeps quiet about it, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t thinking plenty about these jerks, these schlubs, these scammers. I think it’s also interesting that he doesn’t have anything negative to say about his mother. Maybe it’s because of his young age; bitterness about how a parent neglects you in… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Re: “Mexico as a horrible alternative.” Interesting that Erick’s assumptions of life in Mexico come mostly from U.S. cinematic stereotypes, huh? The straw hats and baggy clothes, women wearing out a path from home to church; not to mention the “skinny dogs and donkeys, and ugly bad guys with guns and bullet vests who rode laughing into town to drink and shoot off their pistols and rifles, as if it were the Fourth of July.”

    (Not “as if it were Cinco de Mayo,” note. Or even Mexican Independence Day.)

    Heather Nelson

    David, I don’t think Erick’s assumptions about Mexico come “mostly” from TV, based off of this bit:

    “‘Back,’ for Erick, meant mostly the stories he’d heard from her, which never sounded so good to him: She’d had to share a room with her brothers and sisters. They didn’t have toilets. They didn’t have electricity. Sometimes they didn’t have enough food.”

    I think the TV images just give him the stereotypical visuals to bring his mom’s stories to life.

    Jeff Questad

    I think that’s right, Laura, we are to feel ambivalent about Mom. Her most decisive act seems to be to give her number to the men in suits, but under the circumstances that’s hard to condemn her for. She’s a single Mom. I know I’ve been there, in the same offices and restaurants Erick has, and watching the men as Erick was. It’s not great, and Erick isn’t happy, but he sure isn’t going to condemn his mother either. I don’t either. I think we are meant to feel ambivalent about all the characters. Nobody is supposed to make a… Read more »

    Jeff Questad

    I noticed that too, the stereotyped images, but glad you brought that to the front. No doubt, DG is again saying something about Chicano life but again it makes perfect story sense. Single Mom kids (I know of what I speak) watch a lot of television. His Mom is busy and tired. The TV is probably a babysitter. I bet too, a kid like that sits kind of unseen in places where people are making remarks about his mother or what people think about who is mother is. So, a lot said about Erick’s life, and a statement about race… Read more »

    Heather Nelson

    It’s not just Latino kiddos who have to look to the media for a sense of culture and history. That’s the story of America As We Know It, present-day. And, though I’m sure single-parent households may include a lot of TV time, it’s probably almost as prevalent in two-parent homes.

    Heather Nelson

    Beetlejuice, yes!! I agree completely. In fact, I was going to post below and state that the strongest emotional maneuvers in the piece were 1. when Erick stabbed his eggs and they “bled” into the “American” potatoes (Not Mexican potatoes, as you mentioned above, though he does use the Mexican name for them at the beginning – There also may be something else to say about this bleeding-into-American image.) and 2. at the end with his quiet, heroic defiance of the Philly player. Since I’m on the subject, I don’t sense any “grayness” about the ending at all, and I… Read more »

    Heather Nelson

    Laura, great points. I didn’t, however, feel the same strong emotions emanating from the piece. I’ll explain below.

    Heather Nelson

    I like the fact that the two Americanized names, Erick and Rock, have the same ending letters. I find it interesting that Erick’s mom would use an Anglo name for him, not a traditional Mexican name. And, I like to think that Roque may end up being their stable “rock,” emotional support and meal ticket, out of single-parent household hell. The only tinge of “grayness” at the end is perhaps in this line: “It wasn’t [Roque’s] fault he wasn’t an engineer.” But, I don’t see that as melancholy because Erick isn’t blaming him. He’s giving him an out, giving him… Read more »

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    If there’s grayness, it’s subtle and lives in what will happen when these characters walk off the page. Do we see any indication that Erick’s mother will actually stick with Roque this time? Erick’s agency in the final moment feels to me like a temporary victory which renders it simultaneously uplifting and heartbreaking.

    Heather Nelson

    I still don’t see the grayness, or heartbreak, on or off the page. I don’t think getting an indication that Erick’s mom and Roque will last is of consequence. What is important is Erick’s final, “full”-voice-bringing act. His voice is strong, brimming with what I like to believe is pride, due to his baseball catch and his determination to ensure that he and his mom are happy. It’s important to note that no one in the piece speaks until Erick does so at the end. Do we know that all of the male suiters are Latino? If they are, then… Read more »

    Jeff Questad

    What she said.

    Heather Nelson

    Thanks, Jeff! Except for the “suiters” bit. Jesus, I can’t spell to save my life, lately.

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    Hmmm, can’t it be both?

    Heather Nelson

    Haha! Indeed, Justine. Gilb does detail some of them as wearing suits, so I guess so. :)

    Jose Skinner

    Good observations about the names, Heather.

    Heather Nelson

    Thank you! My favorite lit professor at Texas Tech, Dr. Bruce Clarke, had us bring our own dictionaries into class and totally deconstruct each piece, word by word. I think it stuck.

    Justine Tal Goldberg

    Re: David’s observation, “Note too that Erick doesn’t technically speak until the story’s final lines, in which he uses “a full voice.” Why is that?” Also note that Erick’s mother never speaks. What’s the deal with that?

    Jose Skinner

    I dare say this is the kind of story many people refer to as an “MFA story”: it’s “clean,” economical, subtle, and exquisitely orchestrated in leading up to that final “symphonic” moment, as Jeff calls it. (Even the fact that it’s written in first person tends to make it subject to the accusation.) Well, I thought it was excellent. Don’t see what more you’d expect of a story, really.

    Jeff Questad

    I learned a lot about this story from reading all these comments.

    Heather Nelson

    So did I! Thanks, everyone. :)

    […] Read our spirited back-and-forth about Dagoberto Gilb’s “Uncle Rock,” our May Book Club […]




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