Sunday, April 7, 2013

Short Take: "Uncle Rock," Dagoberto Gilb

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

“Uncle Rock,” a 2010 short story by Dagoberto Gilb, is a well-crafted portrait of an 11-year-old Mexican-American boy and his ambivalent feelings towards his mother. Tthey are working-class, and his father is absent. But his mother is strikingly beautiful. She repeatedly tries to parlay her attractiveness into finding a new husband and a better life, but it never works out in the end. She drifts from man to man, and since the men are generally her employers, from job to job. The boy makes the best of things, but he knows on some level his mother is demeaning herself, and inside he recoils. His antipathy to this series of men extends to her newest boyfriend, whose nickname gives the story its title. The fellow gladhands him like all the others did, and they have no rapport. But the boy also recognizes that the man genuinely cares for his mother. The implicit question is whether he can give the relationship his respect despite his aversion. Things come to a head at a professional baseball game, whose players the boy idolizes. Circumstances bring him into contact with his heroes, and his mother attracts attention from at least one of them. That makes for a crucible that is entirely in his hands. He has to choose between the men he looks up to, and a man he does not. His mother’s dignity hangs in the balance. Gilb renders the boy’s perspective with admirable sensitivity to nuance. He also crafts the story’s climactic dilemma with a quiet effectiveness. There are no histrionics, but one can feel how the boy is torn every which way. And the climax, in which the boy gives his heroes and his mother their due, plays beautifully and without an extraneous note. The story is an elegantly written and emotionally resonant piece.

“Uncle Rock,” by Dagoberto Gilb, was first published in the May 10, 2010 issue of The New Yorker (cover above). It is also featured in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012, edited by Laura Furman.

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