Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Flowers

by Dagoberto Gilb

“The prospect of reading a novel narrated in run-on sentences, fragments, Spanish phrases and street slang might seem daunting, but not when you meet the precocious, Holden Caufieldesque narrator of Dagoberto Gilb’s coming-of-age novel . . . Sonny’s voice is mesmeric. It keeps us reading.” —Sarah Fay, New York Times

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 272
  • Publication Date February 17, 2009
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4402-7
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

Published to rave reviews around the country when it was first published in hardcover, The Flowers is the new novel from Dagoberto Gilb, winner of the PEN/ Hemingway Award for The Magic of Blood and most recently a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for his nonfiction collection, Gritos. Gilb, one of today’s most captivating and authentic fiction writers, is much admired for his compact style and socially brazen storytelling, and his fiction has been compared to Raymond Carver’s and Richard Wright’s. In The Flowers, Gilb has taken on the voice of a Chicano teenager looking at manhood. Sonny Bravo is a tender, smart Mexican American who has come to live at the Flowers, where he moved when his troubled and too beautiful mother Silvia remarried an Okie contractor named Cloyd Longpre. Sonny fills many days taking care of the building—sweeping the decks, taking out the trash, and entangling himself with the lives and stories of other tenants: Cindy, an eighteen-yearold druggie who is married and bored; Nica, a cloistered girl who cares for her infant brother; Bud, a muscled-up construction worker who hates blacks and Mexicans; and Pink, who sells used cars in front of the building. As Sonny observes a miniaturized world of prejudice at the Flowers, the neighborhood he lives in explodes with racial violence—and Sonny does what he can to save what’s good in his world. The Flowers is about rules that can be broken like wooden fences, and about the drive to find that which does not fall apart. Dagoberto Gilb, in his most commanding work yet, has written an inspiring novel about the want for love that transcends age, race, and time.


“The prospect of reading a novel narrated in run-on sentences, fragments, Spanish phrases and street slang might seem daunting, but not when you meet the precocious, Holden Caufieldesque narrator of Dagoberto Gilb’s coming-of-age novel . . . Sonny’s voice is mesmeric. It keeps us reading.” —Sarah Fay, New York Times

The Flowers is just a period in a kid’s life. The events portrayed in the novel—the violence, the racism, the sordid beauty and the sadness—these things are just the norm for Sonny. And that’s what makes the book so powerful . . . after I read The Flowers it would be a lie if I were to say Gilb is a good writer. He’s not. He’s way, way better than good. The Flowers is the best book yet by one of our finest authors.” —Eric Miles Williamson, San Francisco Chronicle

The Flowers is laced with humor and tenderness and, in the end, a sense of hope . . . The author handles the voice of a teenage narrator with skill . . . [and] does an admirable job with the rhythm and flow of the novel . . . The simple language of the novel often turns lyrical. The result is a portrait of a working-class world with all its flowers and thorns.” —David Medina, Houston Chronicle

“Not since James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice has the unspoken so crackled with sexual tension . . . Gilb’s dialogue, working class and downbeat, is inspired. When Sonny and his contemporaries converse in combo—Spanish and English as one—poetry emerges.” —Los Angeles Times

“Gilb expresses sympathy for women under the thumb of angry, threatened men while vividly portraying a romantic, vulnerable, yet calculating and resilient young man coming of age in a storm of prejudice. With a scorching sense of humor, a keen ear for dialogue, and a gift for creating microcosms, Gilb tells a suspenseful tale of loneliness, rage, yearning, and hope.” —Booklist

“The raw narrative about the life of the teenaged Sonny is especially intriguing because of its gritty authenticity. Gilb conveys a realness lacking in more conventional novels by using a mix of Spanish and English to show how Sonny speaks and thinks and by allowing the plot to skip along in relation to Sonny’s tangled thoughts.” —Library Journal

“Gilb’s new novel is hilarious and thought provoking as it traces the bigotry and alienation among the wildly varied cast of characters living in and around the Los Flores apartment building . . . Gilb offers sharp commentary via his quick-witted narrator, and the reader feels Sonny’s disaffection as his world dissolves into chaos.” —Publisher’s Weekly

“Along with Sonny’s daydreams come lessons about life . . . [and] through it all, there is a taste of something sweet: the faint hope of love in the offing, even as sirens scream out above an angry city.” —Alan Cheuse, National Public Radio

“What makes The Flowers bloom, what lifts it beyond polemic and cliché, is its ability to transport the reader into another life. A story ‘that didn’t have nothing to do with people or places you’ve ever seen,’ the book also lifts its seasoned author to another place in the literary order.” —Steven Kellman, Texas Observer

“Reading this captivating, deceptively compact novel is like having a nimble, well-informed guide on a journey into Sonny Bravo’s contradictory, multidimensional, multicultural self.” —San Diego Union-Tribune

“With his new novel The Flowers, Austin-based Dagoberto Gilb has written his most powerful book to date, digging his hands into the fraught subject of race relations, but doing so in his signature humorous, meandering, natural way that makes him such a winning chronicler of Western urban life. Although Gilb’s story alights on all kinds of touchy subjects—racism, illegal immigration, women’s roles, sex, and drugs—he never lectures. Instead, he creates a tableau of humanity that allows readers a fascinating glimpse into the sort of lives they may have wondered about.” —New West Book Review

The Flowers might be Dagoberto Gilb’s second novel, but it’s no sophomore effort . . . Reading The Flowers, one is reminded of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, whose protagonist, like Sonny, finds strength in solitude . . . Gilb has created a character so vivid and sympathetic that we can’t withhold our suspension of disbelief for very long.” —Austin-American Statesman

“Like all coming-of-age novels narrated in the first person, the success of The Flowers depends on its protagonist’s voice and sensibility. Sonny Bravo’s voice captured me from the beginning and, despite some shaky stretches, didn’t let go until the end.” —John Repp, Cleveland Plain-Dealer

The Flowers illuminates the true art of Dagoberto Gilb’s fiction as he explores life’s passions and ambiguities while grappling with the interplay between hope and despair. This is a ferocious, provocative novel, one that confirms Gilb’s reputation as one of our finest contemporary writers.” —El Paso Times

“Dagoberto Gilb’s new novel, The Flowers, is a tightly woven narrative about a boy coming of age in a community bubbling with racial tension. It’s beautifully rendered in part because Mr. Gilb nails the voice of 15-year-old narrator Sonny Bravo with pinpoint accuracy.” —Dallas Morning News

“The Flowers is a bildungsroman about how Sonny, a flawed, deeply appealing hero, becomes a man . . . Gilb writes in a dry yet luminous style; the patience and calmness of his writing quiets and ensnares the reader. And although he peppers his tale with Spanish, his writing is accessible even to people who, like me, don’t speak Spanish.” —St. Petersburg Times

The Flowers reveals a writer at the height of his powers, at ease with characters both unique and archetypal, a plot that caroms like a heat-seeking missile, and thematic concerns from the many faces of love, racial prejudice and violence, and hope in spite of shattered dreams.” —Albuquerque Alibi

“From the first measured words of Dagoberto Gilb’s new novel to its final, heart-wrenching exclamation, Gilb takes readers through a journey that is both startling and inevitable. Its painstaking start may create impatience in some readers, but once The Flowers gets going, it sails to its wondrous conclusion . . . [Gilb] writes with enormous acuity, heart, and, most importantly, a deep respect for even the most unsavory of his characters and their deeds.” —Austin Chronicle

“Dagoberto Gilb is one of the most powerful writers of his generation, and The Flowers is perhaps his best book. It’s not to be missed.” —Larry McMurtry

Praise for Dagoberto Gilb:

“Dagoberto Gilb has written a brilliant novel that vibrates with the psychic underpinnings of the contemporary Latino experience in Los Angeles. He captures the fluid literacy of fifteen-year-old Sonny Bravo, whose untutored intelligence sparkles with the raw poetic power of the streets. As a Chicano novelist, Dagoberto ventures into the nether world of an apartment house—where the social intercourse between the working class, immigrant, criminal, black, white and brown tenants of Los Flores is unrelentingly secretive and full of longing—and creates a new kind of literature out of the barrio English of his protagonist. His achievement is a stunning portrait of a crackling bilingual universe where life and ‘death hums through the wires’ above the streets. It is a totally original work of American literature.” —Luis Valdez

“Dagoberto Gilb is one of the most powerful writers of his generation, and The Flowers is perhaps his best book. It contains a wonderful, almost magical, evocation of Los Angeles. It’s not to be missed.” —Larry McMurtry

“Dagoberto Gilb’s Woodcuts of Women is not just a man’s book of stories about women—it’s a wonderful exhibit of talent: great stories about men and women and the old fandango, tango, cha-cha-cha of their dance together. These stories are hard-hitting and heart-filling. The vision, like the writing, is clear and sharp—a mix of Raymond Carver and Anton Chekhov. But no one writes like Gilb. You finish reading his book and you begin right then to wait for the next one. He’s that good.” —Julia Alvarez, on Woodcuts of Women

“Gilb is a legitimate and undeniable talent. Not just in ‘Chicano literature,’ not just in a certain part of the country or in select college syllabi, but in the vast black sea of American ink.” —Austin Chronicle

Gritos is an intimate look at Gilb’s growth as a writer grappling with a desire to stay true to his working class roots, and at the same time expose the powerful talent he has for penetrating, honest, and emotional writing about cultural misconceptions, family relationships, manual labor, and American literature.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Dagoberto Gilb is an important voice in American fiction. These stories of working-class, low-rent lives illuminated by the small pleasures of sex and drink and food and sleep and relief from the heat, stories of people with explosive tempers stumbling back and forth over cultural borders, of pregnancies and evictions and sudden love . . . are like no others. We need these stories.” —Annie Proulx, on Woodcuts of Women

The Flowers speaks to us of heartbreak in a fractured urban world and of the courage it takes to survive there. We’re lucky to have this fellow shining his light for us.” —William Kittredge, author of The Willow Field

Woodcuts of Women portrays men in the brightness of rage, lousy jobs, divine lust, and, especially, in the dazed sucker punch of love. Love, after all, is what this book is all about, love from the heart, and from that other needy vortex below the waist as well. Love ‘that makes you sick like a flu.’ Here is the Southwest without myth and sentimentality. And here are los hombres with all their bravado and hungry hurt.” —Sandra Cisneros


A 2008 San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year


Not that many years ago I would go to a house in the neighborhood, not always someone’s I knew, one I’d never been inside of, where I’d only have to maybe hop a fence, nothing complicated, and from the backyard I’d crawl through an open window. People always latch the ones in the front but never in the back, and especially not the bathroom one, you know, and it wasn’t so small I couldn’t get in quick. I could’ve stole lots of shit in those houses, except that’s not what I was going in there for. I wasn’t like that. Maybe I don’t know exactly what I was doing except I was doing it. I never took nothing, nothing much if I did, because I didn’t want to. I was more watching how the people lived, imagining how it would be in their house. I stared at the framed pictures they had of their family. Husbands in suits and wives with necklaces and old grandparents from the other times way before. Unsmiling dudes, glaring at you, in tilted military hats and coats with medals and ribbons.

Full-body shots of happy daughters in white veils and lacy crunchy wedding dresses that poured all over into the bottom of the picture. Shocked little babies on blue backgrounds squinting like What’s going on here, what’s all this light shit? Dopey-dumb I’m-so-proud high schoolers graduating and making a face like they were department store managers. If I felt like it, if I had the mood, I sprawled out on their couches or lay down on their beds. Go, How would I be if I lived here? I’d let that come into me, I’d let my mind go to the show it liked. Maybe you could say I would go off to my own world. To me it wasn’t mine, nothing like mine, because it would go to black. I loved that color. It was like when the eyes aren’t open but try to see. What would finally come were colors and lines busting through, flying out and off and cutting in, crazy fires and sparks, and it’d come out speeding, and I’d be like a doggie out the window, those lane dividers whiffing by on the freeway straight below an open car window. I’d start to see shapes floating and straightening and wiggling and see it like it was a music that didn’t make sound but was making a story. Not a regular story and I don’t mean one you would hear some loco nut tell you, one that didn’t have nothing to do with people or places you’ve ever seen. It’s that I can’t describe it better. Just, I have to watch, I have to listen. It was always good too. Say like when you hear music and it gets inside your brain and goes and goes, sticking there. And so I guess it got in mine like that. I listened and watched until I stopped getting too stupid because, you know, I had to leave and get out of there fast. And once I got up, shook it off and remembered where I really was, even if I opened their refrigerator, when I looked inside, wasn’t like I didn’t think of eating or drinking, I didn’t take even a soda, thirsty as I might have been. I didn’t want them to know I’d been there. Though I kind of opened the fridge door because maybe I do think of—well, like orange juice. It’s that I like orange juice. So maybe when there was some orange juice I might have taken a gulp or two. But see, even then, nobody’d really know. One time I was in this one house, and I was looking inside a drawer in this girl’s bedroom. I knew about her because she was this dude’s older sister, and she was in junior college. It was that there were a bunch of bras, and I picked them up and looked at them, touched them because I was holding them. Wasn’t like I never seen my mom’s and my sister’s, it wasn’t like I didn’t know the difference. And it was the only time there was something like that, swear, and I did stop and yeah I still got jumpy about it and felt like it was fucked up, real bad of me and afterward I only snuck into one more house. Like I said, I didn’t know what I was doing it for, and it wasn’t like I liked doing it.

I heard this shit because she was on the phone and I listened to her. It was her sound, a white ripply line right into the black. Not above. Black was everywhere and the white came from the front, above, maybe below. I don’t know. I think it was Nely she was talking to, probably. That was who she talked to. That’s who I thought. My mom was going like What can he do? and So what he screamed. Listen to me, she said. No, listen to me. No, listen, listen. And I listened to what I could. I saw the white ribbon curling and swirling. Men. She kind of laughed. He will never know, she said. Ay, ay, no! She laughed. She said, He is a man, and I didn’t ask for that. She was laughing but not laughing happy and I’m listening and I’m like going to that somewhere else inside my head, all by myself.

I got worried I was getting sent to juvie when I did have to go to the court because of nothing, for so much less. That was this time when the police scraped the tires of their black-and-white against the curb ahead of me. I was walking by myself. At first I didn’t believe it was about me, but that policeman kept wanting to know what I was doing. I was not wanting to say. Okay, maybe, even really I was scared like anybody and I didn’t want to show it but probably I did. How was I supposed to answer because what’d I do? I was just walking, you know? Maybe a couple days earlier I pocketed a chocolate bar and I folded a baby comic book down my pants. It wasn’t like the first time I did that, and when I did get caught this one and only time, when a drugstore man yelled something, I ran, and I never made it back to that store again and that was the worst of it and that already was back then, and no way anyone could still care or remember. So the passenger policeman who came up to me first, he goes, So what’re you doing? and I’m like, Walking on the street, mister, which is when the driver policeman comes around to stand next to his partner, and he frowns at me too, like I’m stinky. Until a second or so later, he gets this expression on his face. His eyes go a little up to the sky, and his body gets kind of stiff, and he blows this fat old pedo. And so, like anybody would, I laughed. I did because it was funny, right? And so yeah I’m all guilty of laughing. But that’s when they both get all blowed up mad, like I’m disrespectful, and I got attitude, and who did I think I am? They got so close into my face I thought they were gonna kick the crap outta me. And so that’s why I had to go to the juvie court, to hear a commercial about disrespecting the police and authority and to hear about all the potential trouble I was going to be in if I didn’t go right and goodboy, straighten out and care about school and my education and get good grades. My mom had to be there with me too. She had to take off from work and listen and act like she was all worked up about me too, which she wasn’t, I knew it, because I heard her talking all the time on the phone about what she was up with, but the lady judge wasn’t going to notice nothing. Once I told my mom how the police dude threw a fart, she cracked up just like me, because it was funny, right? But I knew not to say nothing to a judge about what really happened. I’m not stupid. That judge, she wouldn’t have laughed, and then I don’t think my mom would’ve laughed no more, and she never laughed as much as me. She was tired, and she didn’t like to waste time because she was already way too busy.

It was that my mom, if she wasn’t at her job, was out on dates and whatever. And sometimes she’d get in so late I wouldn’t be awake. That was better for me than when she was home, because when she was home, though I lived there and slept there, it was better to be inside a neighbor’s house than pissing her off. She could get all mad and complaining about me and go how I messed up this and that and she could yell at me how she couldn’t afford a maid to clean up after me, though once in a while a lady named Marta, a sister of a friend, would come to pick up the house and scrub the floors and wash windows and dishes and vacuum even under the torn couch cushions. That Marta thought I was all right because I made my own dinner and lunch and did my shit without nobody. She told me whenever she came too. That didn’t mean much to me except when I was getting yelled at and I knew it really wasn’t about none of what the yelling was about. Probably my mom’s screaming at me was that it used to be my sister, Ceci, she would yell at. Then it got to be me. I didn’t ever believe it was because I was a man or made bigger messes, like she said. My mom used to fight loud with my sister. She would get so she’d go after Ceci with belts or wooden hangers or whatever was near. One time it was a soda bottle. I remember that time good. I was eating banana after banana during the fight and my mom turned on me for one second too—maybe why was I eating all the bananas the minute she bought them—and my sister screamed right back so much it jumped back over to them and they called each other out, like they would go at it for real. Sometimes both of them would cry for a while during and after, though mostly it was my sister, once she got old enough, and meaner, until she finally stopped being at home much. Ceci wasn’t talking to me very much then either. Then they were both gone mostly. It was just, without my sister there, I was starting to have the whole house, like it was mine. I never got hit or yelled at like Ceci. My mom would be around for maybe an hour or two, and she’d either change clothes and leave or be so tired she went into her bedroom and went to sleep.

This one night I was watching the TV. I already ate a cheese enchilada frozen dinner, which was crap, and the fried chicken, which I loved but my mom said cost too much. My dog, who I named Goofy because of her floppy black ears even though she was a girl dog, was with me on the couch after she licked the tin containers all clean, dragging them all around with her tongue, then scratching and biting at her pulgas back near my lap, when all the sudden she heard something and she was digging her claws against my legs because she was on it before a human ear could, running so fast she was barely able to make a corner turn to the straight-ahead for the front door, barking all excited like it was somebody she hadn’t seen all day. I didn’t hear nothing, probably because I had that TV on and nobody ever knocked on the door unless it was a Mormon or Jehovah or one of those ex-tecatos who love Jesus like their heroin, and I learned to stop opening the door for any of them. Usually I wouldn’t even look if I did hear but because Goofy’s barking so crazy I go, and before I even get near the door I could feel the pounding on it through the floor and I heard some man yelling at it loud and he’s beating on it, so hard that it’s shaking and rattling. I ain’t going to answer but he keeps hitting on the door so much I can’t help myself, the words pop out of me that my mom’s not here. It was that he was screaming about her. He was screaming like You bitch, open the fucking door right now, you goddamn thief, you slut, you bitch, open this door, Silvia, right now, or I’ll fucking bust it in.

I was standing there not sure what to say or do next, Goofy all barking and wagging like it was something fun.

“Open the door,” he says. “Open the fucking door.”

And without thinking first, now I’m talking too. I’m saying no. I’m saying that my mom’s not home. I go reach over and check that it’s still locked, and I hook the chain thing, backing away from it as quickly as I got close.

“Open the door,” he says. He was beating on it so that the door was wanting to give in. “Open it!” I felt like the whole house was shaking.

Finally I can think for a second. It was hard because Goofy was going all crazy. “She’s not home!” I shouted. I can think finally, and what I’m thinking is that I know who it is. I’m thinking it’s the man I heard her talking on the phone about. That once he’d shot a man. That he got drunk a lot. This man’s voice sounded drunk.

“You open the door,” he says, “or do you want me to bust it in?”

I swear he was slugging the door with his fist, and there was like a crackling wood sound.

“Do you hear me, kid? Do you fucking hear me?”

I’m whispering to Goofy to stop barking, Come on, Goof, trying to make her calm, but she’s on automatic. It got like she was barking at another dog and wanting to bite.

“Where is the bitch? You tell that fucking mother of yours to open the door or I’m busting it in right now! You hear me?”

I ran to the kitchen. I had to open a bunch of drawers because my mom never put things in the same ones or maybe I didn’t because I didn’t know which drawer either. I found that big knife. It was as long as my wrist, a wood handle. As soon as I grip it in my hand, I don’t feel as scared. I didn’t care if he carried a gun. He comes in, I cut the dude. Goofy was still wailing at the door and he was still hitting on it and saying shit but it seemed quieter to me. I walked back a little slow, and I didn’t go near the door but to one side of it. I held the big knife in my hand and I’m gripping it so hard I didn’t feel like it was a knife but me.

The man started kicking the door. Then he was throwing his body against it, and you could hear wood cracking. I’m just standing there and I didn’t hear Goofy no more, if she was even barking. When the door blasts, splintering the side it opened on, it swung so hard and wild that Goofy didn’t move away and she made a loud crying yelp, getting thrown against the wall, crushed between it and the door. The man was standing outside on the front porch and breathing fast. He rolled up the sleeves of his white business shirt and tucked it into his black slacks and there was some tattoo on his right forearm muscle and he had on a slippery tie loose around an unbuttoned collar and he was big. His face all purple. Real quick Goofy went back to her barking again and the man couldn’t figure out which of us to look at first until I see him see my knife. His eyes were slits but I could feel heat and breathing out of them too and I was standing there maybe ten feet away, one hand with the big knife loaded in it, the other hand clenched and a little up, looking ready to jab in a left-right combination.

“Watch yourself now, kid,” he says, stepping inside toward me.

I stepped back, though not like I was backing off.

“You have to put that down right now,” he says to me. “You just drop it, okay kid?”
I didn’t say nothing. I stepped back once more, keeping the same distance between us. He stepped toward me again and I backed up once more, thinking where a knife should go.

Then he went at me. He was so fast he took me down even before I saw him come and his hand locked my hand with the knife in it to the floor. He pushed the air out of me because his body on me was so heavy I couldn’t breathe. Goofy was growling and biting him and I was trying to at least kick his nuts but I didn’t do a thing to him and when I made him roll a little, it made the knife dig into my own stomach.

He got me onto my back and pinned me, both my hands pressed to the floor, his knees into my chest, hurting my ribs, the knife not cutting me or him.

“Stop,” he says, too close to my face. “You gonna stop?” Goofy was back to biting him and that was when he let go of me, ripping the knife away from me as he stood up. Goofy kept going for his leg until his hard black shoe lifted her jaw and head when he kicked her there really hard, and she whimpered, hurt. I got up once he got off me, and I was crying, and I saw how I was bleeding at my stomach. It didn’t hurt or nothing yet. He was standing there watching me for what might not have been such a long time, and then he just turned around and took off out the broken front door.

And so all the time it seemed like I was hearing her on the phone when I didn’t want to. I probably wanted to know, but I didn’t want to hear. Wondered who it was when I heard her going, Whatever I have to do, or, No, I won’t, no. The phone was nothing good. It was like waiting on a school bell, jumping at how loud and always expecting. When I can’t not listen in on her, I want to smash that quiet between. When it was her voice I was following, when there was silence it meant that some shit would hit. So I tried to never listen. I made it go black inside my head, and then words, when she’d make them, were these shapes that wormed around, spraying light that would disappear into a hole that was bigger than any room I been in.

It was like right then, even if it was really days or something, that my mom introduced me to Cloyd Longpre. He was wearing a fake blue suit and tie. I never saw him in one ever again. Also, his hair was all pomade oil. That also would be the only time it was so neat that you could see the comb lines. I was sitting on our couch in the living room, and he sat in a chair—it was Goofy’s favorite unless she was sitting with me on the couch watching the TV—across from me, a kind of stupid but really happy stupid smile on his face. He had a silver tooth on one side, showing at the edge of his mouth. Between us was the floor where I’d been taken down. I was still feeling mad about it, so there was that. Not the cut. I didn’t care about that. It didn’t hurt no more. It didn’t really hurt even when it was supposed to, right after. My mom was sitting next to me. She was wearing a flower dress—I think roses, though I call all flowers roses—a new one, and shiny red shoes that matched. She was being too pretty like always. I loved my mom, and sometimes it scared me because I thought maybe I wasn’t supposed to say that even to myself. Maybe I wouldn’t have thought about it except that I was always seeing how men looked at her. When I did too, just to think about what it was about, I knew what it was about. How pretty she was in the way men are flipping through pages of dirty magazines. My mom sometimes would go around in her bra and panties in the house. You know, especially in her bedroom and bathroom and between. Nothing fucked up, she just wasn’t embarrassed. So seeing her, I really started knowing what it was about her. It made me sick when I did too. I even had some bad dreams a couple of times. One that made me the most upset was that I was going up some stairs and then I opened a door and went to the bed there to—well, you know, and when I was getting in and shit like that I saw how it was my mom and I jumped right out of that dream. It woke me up feeling messed up.

Cloyd Longpre had questions. He was trying to show he was, you know, interested in me. That I mattered to him. It was a show for my mom. He thought it would matter to her. It was hard for me to pretend back. There was nothing I could do about who my mom went out with, and mostly I didn’t say or think shit about it. But there was something else I couldn’t point to about him, and it made it even longer to sit there.

“You look a lot bigger for your age,” he said.

I should say no? I should say right?

“Built,” he went on. “Strong.” He looked at my mom, stupid smiling. “I could maybe even put him to work now.”

I looked at my mom too. She had an expression that this Cloyd was supposed to see as proud and that for me was to feel proud too. He was only flirting with her, and she was only going along with him.

“You gonna play football?”

I played street and schoolyard football a lot. My side usually won. I played for the junior high team for two games and stopped. I made more touchdowns on kickoffs than anyone, more on interceptions too, and we won, but then I stopped going. I didn’t like coaches telling me nothing, yelling. They screamed and shit and so fuck them. I didn’t like nobody getting on me, never. Pissed me off bad. I didn’t watch sports on TV, college or pro. Sports was in my head, it was just for me to play, a game to keep the brain in shape. I could play but didn’t and didn’t say any of this to him though, because I could play this game too and already I thought maybe I had to.

“Dile, tell him,” my mom said. “He’s an athlete, always the fastest runner.”

She didn’t know that. It wasn’t even true no more. It hadn’t been true since elementary, since sixth grade, when I finally got beat by a black dude who was four legs and I never could beat, hard as I tried and I tried. That other time, hundreds of years ago, was probably the last time I told her about anything that made me happy—or that she heard from me anyways.

“But you like sports?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said, my first sound in front of him. That was because I wanted to make my mom happy, not him.

“I like sports,” Cloyd Longpre said. “Though I can’t say I get to follow it much these days.”

“Maybe he likes baseball,” my mom told him. “I think that’s his favorite.” She came over and sat on the armrest of the couch, next to me. She touched my hair like she did her skirt when she first sat there. “Don’t you, míjo?” She had no idea. We never talked nothing about me.

He didn’t wait to hear an answer from me.

“What about huntin’?” he said. “You like huntin’? You ever been?”

“No sir,” I said.

He smiled and it came out dumb. This was when I saw it that way for the first time. It was that he meant it, it was a real and honest smile, and it came out looking stupid. “No sir you never been, or no sir you don’t like it?” When he said no sir, I could tell he was making fun of how I said it.

“He’s never been,” my mom told him for me fast, defensively.

“That I never been,” I told him. I don’t know which I would have answered if my mom hadn’t jumped in for me. The truth is, I didn’t want to go hunting and especially not with this hillbilly.

“You’d love it,” he said. “Wait till you eat fresh venison or fresh duck. Nothing better.”

I was back to not knowing what to say, or wanting to say something, and it was way quiet.

“I can get you a rifle,” he said.

My mom looked at him sideways, then away from him, then moved like she wanted to stand up.

“Not a big one, Sil. Just a twenty-two. To get the boy used to it.”

“No guns. I don’t want him to shoot anybody,” she said.

I didn’t say. It didn’t seem to be about the gun anyways.

“Well then, what would you like?” he asked me. “What would make you happy?”

My mom stood up, a little nervous, like she didn’t know which way to go.

He noticed and spoke to her. “Okay. What say I promise any one big thing? How’s that sound?” He ran his fingers through that greased-back hair of his and messed it some. Then to me—“You pick it.”

My mom, for a second or two, made her mad look. Then, like that, she changed, and she went over to Cloyd Longpre and sat on the armrest of that chair. When she was next to him, and she put her hand on his shoulder, scratching him with her polished nails, he looked up at her like he was the luckiest man because her warm body was next to him, thank you, and thank you Lord. She made her eyes go like she’s so flattered, and you’re welcome. What he didn’t know, and I did, was that she went like that lots of times. It was nothing special.

At the same time I watched this, while it seemed like he might have forgot, I thought of something to ask for.

“One thing?” I said.

He had his finger rubbing the belt of my mom’s dress, above her butt.

“You name it, partner.” That smile all stupid.

It’s that I picked up on what was really going on here, and now I wanted to play too. I wanted to mess with him. “I wanna go to Notre Dame,” I told him. Not that I did, because I didn’t. I didn’t care. It’s what I thought of and I wanted to think of something. It’s that I just saw a movie on TV, and people in it were at Notre Dame.

He made a laugh that went along with his smile. My mom was surprised too.

“You gotta get good grades to go there,” he said, “and, son, that has all to do with you and nothing to do with me.”

“No—” I started.

“Oh, I hear you! But I thought you weren’t interested in football!” he said. “He wants to see a football game. Are they coming to town soon?”

It took me a couple of seconds. “No, that’s not what I mean.” I almost gave it up right there. Then I didn’t. “I mean Notre Dame the church. The one in Paris. In France.”

My mom and Cloyd Longpre both laughed like it was the wildest thing they’d ever heard. They didn’t think I meant it. That I could possibly mean it.

“Oh, that Notre Dame game!” he said.

“Well, you said anything!” my mom said, laughing just like him.

“I did, I did,” he said. “Wouldn’t that cost a fortune!” he told her. “The boy don’t think cheap, I give that to him.”

His body leaned toward me from the chair.

“You keep your eyes open and you watch me surprise you,” he told me. A couple of times in the sentence, he made fast winks, kind of crooked, like that was to let me know how this was a special communication between us only.

That he didn’t believe me, or he did? I say that at first he didn’t, but as he looked longer, he snagged something. Didn’t catch what I was up to, because there was no way. I was good at not being seen inside, even if I wasn’t sure yet how I would hold him to this promise or whatever you call it, or how I was going to make it into a big dream I was counting on. And so yeah he was on to something behind my eyes, because when we looked at each other again, him kind of rechecking, maybe he saw more, and he backed off wondering what I was up to.

I got one of the bedrooms in Cloyd Longpre’s two-bedroom apartment. I never really thought about the bedroom I’d been in before that. For a while I’d shared it with my sister, until she made herself one out of the dining room to be alone, which had been where we watched TV, ate dinner, and I’d played with toys. That old bedroom wasn’t mine no more than the kitchen or the bathroom or the whole house, but this new bedroom was in a land far away from my home. It wasn’t only because it’d been Cloyd Longpre’s son’s, who’d left it like this hundreds of years ago with all his junk still in it. For example, a really ugly red checkered bedspread. I never even had a bedspread before. Only my mom put one on her bed back in her room, and she only made it sometimes, when she was in a mood. In my home, I slept with a blanket, once in a while two when I got cold. When you pulled back this bedspread deal here, there was a blanket and it also had one of those sheets under it. I had a pillow for my old bed too, and it was on the side where my head would go when I got in to go to sleep. Here, the pillow was folded into the bedspread at the top, all show, and above it was a headboard, one with a shelf cut to go inside it. That was the only thing I got used to and even liked. It also wasn’t because I hated baseball pennants on the wall, but I did hate the one about National Parks in Utah, and the one from Carlsbad Caverns, and the one from the Grand Canyon—I wanted to yank them down without asking. What did that have to do with where I lived? Except why bother when I wasn’t going to be here that long, so I liked them there for proof I wasn’t staying. Didn’t ever move the fishing rods in the corner, or the globe, which I sort of liked really but I didn’t spin around or even touch anyways because it wasn’t mine, or the bookcase with a bunch of boy scout camping books—which why would I fucking want and so I left exactly there too. But no, I didn’t sit down on the bed there thinking how I missed my old bedroom. I didn’t have feelings nothing like that. This just wasn’t the bedroom back in my home and wouldn’t ever be and that’s it.

“Whadaya think?” Cloyd Longpre asked me. He was standing at the door, grinning dumb, wearing his work uniform, matching gray pants and shirt, laced high-top work boots. His hair was messed up because he also wore a gray work cap, which he was holding in his hand.

“It’s okay,” I said.

“I can get you a studying desk too,” he said, looking at an empty space. “I got the one that was in here out back in the storage unit.” He was trying to be nice, but really it was more have-to-be-nice than nice. It was to make my mom happy, probably.

“It’s okay,” I told him, shaking my head no.

“It’s not a problem,” he said. “It fits right there. I don’t even remember why I took it out.”

“I don’t need it.”

“I must have taken it out because it was broken, not just small. Yeah, I think that was what it was. But I can glue it up, make it work for you, and then I’m sure I can find you a chair for it.”

“I don’t need nothing, man.” I was sounding nice, I swear.

He looked around and paused, but he was thinking about me. “You gotta study. That’s what the Notre Dames want.”

“I can probably just lay on the bed if I have to,” I said, trying, honestly. Still, a few seconds later, I couldn’t stop. “Notre Dame, France.”

“Always good to have a desk,” he said, copping attitude.

I was hoping not to talk much more. I didn’t like the way it felt, me sitting there on the bed he owned, and him standing above me. “Yeah, thanks, but I don’t want it.” I looked up at him for less than a second, which was hard for me to do. “I like it here the way it is now.”

“Have it your way,” he said. Now he sounded ticked at me.

“Thanks though.” I don’t know why I didn’t want to say it to him directly, but I said it looking away.

“You need anything. . .” he said.

“A French book,” I said.

It was almost like he was hearing me talk in French. “Wha’d you say?”

“A French book. I probably need a French book. To study it, you know?”

“O-kay,” he said, making two words.
He almost closed the door behind him, but my mom was next, already pushing it back open.

She’d had her nails done. It was how she was holding her hands.

“Is everything fine, míjo?”

I nodded.

“Then what’s wrong?”


“Nada nada?” She used a mami voice to me.

“Yeah. Nothing.”

“It’ll be good living here,” she said. “Don’t you think?”

I nodded like I was trying to really mean it.

“You’ll see.”

My mom was dressed too pretty to take serious, shampoo in her hair and body lotion smell, and she was trying too hard to sound happy.

Nobody’d believe her except her.

“I won’t have to work, so I’ll even get to cook for you.”

That made me smile because it was almost funny to imagine.

“I can too cook! Don’t you laugh at me!”

Sometimes she’d cooked at home. She made enchiladas and tacos fast. What I loved was this deal made with noodles and beef and green chile and cheese and canned creamed corn. She would make one or the other of them for birthdays, although she usually bought our food someplace. I couldn’t imagine her in the kitchen more than like once a month. First off, she didn’t have the clothes for it. She’d have to buy special clothes. Second, moms who cooked were fat and slobby. And third, they wore their hair like for being home, for vacuuming and watching daytime TV. She never even watched TV. She wasn’t any fat, and it seemed like she was always going to a beauty parlor to try a new hairstyle, which everyone complimented her on because it would like “fit her face so well”—what she’d say the girls said, no matter what style—and she had to wear lots of shining jewelry. Nobody cooks meals wearing hoop earrings and silver bracelets.

She came over and sat next to me on the bed, putting her arm around me like she might make out with me. “Today you’re my baby boy, you know, and now I’m going to get to be a mother for you. I know I haven’t been. I haven’t had any time for you, have I?”

I shrugged. This whole scene was beginning to make me pretty much think about, I don’t know, studying French, just to mess with everybody.

“I’m so sorry, míjito. I really am.” She kissed me right on the lips.

I couldn’t remember the last time she kissed me anywhere, unless it was for show when she’d also be drinking. You know, one of those Qué guapo es my little man!, and then a hard smooch like she couldn’t resist me, leaving her audience, her fans, usually her girlfriends, giggling and aahing. But this was softening me, enough to almost straight out ask her, So why this Cloyd dude? It ain’t funny. What are you thinking? I already knew her answers, once I took a second. I was older than her in a way that isn’t about years, and she even expected me to tell her practical shit. But I still wanted her to tell me herself. I didn’t want to only listen in, overhear her talking on the phone. I loved my mom even when I wondered why everyone was supposed to love their mom. Maybe because, if she wasn’t drunk, it was so easy to understand her. Simple. Except the part about these men. Especially except the part about this Cloyd man. How could she? I don’t mean the practical part. I meant, How was she planning to live here with him every day? How was she gonna get out of here clean? She did not like him. So I wanted her to tell me in words, to describe it to me kind of, well, so it’d be a story that made sense, and I’d see it that way.

All you had to do was look around the apartment to know this Cloyd wasn’t right for either of us. That big dinner table which he called the supper table, with the heavy wooden chairs all around it—I don’t think I’d ever seen so much wood, even in a picture of a forest. And we never ate dinner at no table before, unless it was at a restaurant. My mom told me the furniture was maple. That was the same wood as all around the house, the end tables and the coffee table, the little knickknack shelves, and a china cabinet. I figured it was that maple went with the color of a dead deer’s head. Those were in the living room—that room next to where the dinner table was—hanging from a wall. Okay, all the others were in his office, and there was only one deer head in the living room. A buck, he explained. Another body on the wall was a prize-winning rainbow trout, he said—it was a fish, to me, before he said it—and another was an owl, which took over the top of the maple cabinet, its claws gripping a branch which shot off a thicker branch which was in a varnished slice of a tree trunk. He didn’t shoot this owl, Cloyd told us. His son just gave it to him as a present. Not on a birthday or Christmas, no holiday whatever, just plain gave it to him to be his kind of cool. His son was a taxidermist and did the work himself. All of it, in fact, was his own professional work. The lamps, wood with flying birds—mallard ducks, he said—painted on them, he bought those at a store for decoration.

He asked if I wanted to hear about the day he shot that buck. I was supposed to say yes. I couldn’t stand there nice and listen, could not. No, not even if I sat on that ugly red sofa or that big leather chair, the one that was his favorite chair, he said, more reliable than any woman—his Sil here excluded, of course! I was welcome to sit in it too, he said, but if I got used to it, I better not be surprised if he just landed on my lap. He was so funny, huh? I wanted to laugh. Yeah, he’d been sitting in it for so many years it was like a bed to him. He liked to fall asleep in it after work. He’d get so comfy and cozy he’d get mad at himself when he woke up past his bedtime. A couple few beers, he said, a couple few sips of Old Grand Dad, and, well, that chair was the one to make Zzs in. But no anyways, not even if I could sit in that chair of his, did I want to hear about the buck that was up above, across from it. Maybe later, I told him, as polite as I could make myself.

I was slouching against that red sofa, waiting for the end. “So when is Goofy gonna be able to come here?”

“We’re working on that,” Cloyd said. “We’re trying to figure that one out.”

My mom was pretending not to hear my question, and I did not want to talk about it with him. But I didn’t want her to say some lie to me either. She was always lying.

“What happened to her?” I was asking my mom.

“She’s with my son,” he said.

“You mean the dude who stuffs dead animals?”

“That’s not what’s happening,” he said. “Be smart.”

“He is smart,” my mom said.

“Let’s not get in a fight over this,” he said.

“I just don’t think you need to say anything like that about Sonny,” she said.

“I only wanna know what happened to Goofy,” I said.

“And all I meant to say, all I said was, she’s fine,” he said.

My mom got pissed off eyes for him, so didn’t look at him. “She can’t live here with us, míjo, I’m sorry. I know it’s hard. I’m sorry.”

“The dog’s fine,” Cloyd said. “The dog’s happy.”

I would have to learn to talk in French. I wanted a sentence. It made me smile, thinking how I would learn French.

Reading Group Guide

1. The large city sprawl that serves as the backdrop for The Flowers can be seen as a major character in the novel, changing by day and night, acting as a catalyst for the hopes and desires of its inhabitants. Begin your discussion of the novel by considering the importance of this urban landscape. How are the characters affected by the unremitting noise, sounds, and smells of the street? How does this constant buffeting affect Sonny? Consider especially the sounds that sweep in from the boulevard at night. Does he try to escape the noise, or does he use it as a way to escape from his own life and those of lives around him?

2. “I was more watching how the people lived, imagining how it would be in their house. . . . Go, How would I be if I lived here?” (pp 1-2) In our first introduction to Sonny Bravo, the novel’s young protagonist, he describes the way in which he used to break into houses. As a reader, what was your first reaction to his admission? Consider how quickly we are drawn inside his head and how much we learn about him from these opening pages. How would you describe him? Talk about the dichotomy between his actions and his feelings about these actions and what it tells you about Sonny. What is your response to him? Does it change over the course of the novel?

3. From the novel’s outset, it is evident that the way the story is told will be as important as its story. Talk about your reactions to Sonny’s raw street talk peppered with untranslated Spanish. Does it draw you closer into his world with its straightforward honesty or did you find it somewhat alienating? Comment on the poetic beauty that flashes throughout the narrative and lights up the often harsh reality of the character’s lives. Compare Gilb’s raw lyricism with the way in which Sonny often moves beyond his present world into another world in his mind. “What would finally come were colors and lines busting through, flying out and off and cutting in, crazy fires and sparks . . .” (p. 2)

4. How far would you agree that Gilb’s novel works like a poem, in the way that he focuses on the small details of his character’s every day lives to comment on larger, universal themes of love, race, and cultural identity?

5. As a fifteen-year-old Mexican American, living in an undefined large city (probably Los Angeles), Sonny Bravo undergoes his coming of age carrying with him the weight of age-old racial and sexual stereotypes. To what extent does Sonny view himself as a Mexican American, and how does this affect the ways in which he spends his days? What about the way he is viewed by some of the other characters—his stepfather, Cloyd, Bud, the Zunigas. How does he break racial and cultural stereotypes of Latin male machismo?

6. The theme of work can be seen as central to Gilb’s fiction, and it plays an important role in The Flowers. Analyze the place of work in Silvia Bravo’s life, and the changes wrought by a remarriage that takes away her financial need to work. How is Sonny’s relationship with his stepfather defined by the work he does for him? Why does Sonny choose to work instead of staying in his room? Is it a kind of escape for him? Talk about the parallel theme of boredom—Cindy begs Sonny to stay with her. “I’m broke, I’m lonely, I’m bored.” Consider the irony of the similar ways in which the characters escape from the hard grind or the boredom of their lives. Comment also on the way that Sonny seeks out solitude for himself, spending little time with friends or family members, flitting between the neighbors. Why does he do this?

7. Silvia Bravo is an important presence at the center of the novel. Analyze her relationship with her son and consider how it changes. What are her hopes for him? From the beginning of the narrative, even through Sonny’s eyes, we are aware of her as a sexual object “I was always seeing how men looked at her . . . How pretty she was in the way men are flipping through pages of dirty magazines” (p. 10). Do we ever get another view of her? Dissect your feelings about Sonny’s mother, and consider whether you pity her, judge her, or admire her. What do you think she hoped for in her marriage to Cloyd? Why did she think that her marriage could ever have worked? How far would you agree that her marriage and situation seem almost archetypal, repeated in apartments throughout Los Flores and across the city in which they live.

8. Expanding upon the last question, discuss the ways in which the novel touches upon and explores many different forms of love. Talk about the ways in which the characters are bound together by love. Consider in your discussion the examples of parental love that we are shown. Has anybody at Los Flores found happiness? Does anyone still have dreams?

9. Take a look at the main female characters in the novel—Silvia, Cindy, and Nica. Talk about the similarities and differences between Cindy and Silvia’s situations. For whom do you predict the brighter future? Cindy and Nica are both young girls, not too distant in age but universes apart in terms of their experiences of life and love. What are your feelings toward Cindy—do you see any hope for her in the future, any way out of her situation? What about Nica? To what extent would you agree that, in some ways, these females seem almost Dostoevskian in their representation of the “saint” and “whore,” and yet Gilb imbues them with such realism that they could never be viewed as stereotypes. What do the girls represent to Sonny? Is it easy for him to step from the world of one to the other?

10. Compare Bud and Cloyd taking into account ways in which they resemble each other, the ways in which they differ. Many of the male characters seem to be domineering and overbearing, trapping their wives or daughters in subservient lives. Are there any males—other than Sonny—to whom this does not apply?

11. One of the sweetest moments in the novel takes place when old Mr. Josep tells his love story to Nica and Sonny, a tale about the uncertainty of young love, of how easily it can be destroyed. “The dog is dead, yet I am lucky because I am in love and I feel as a man full of his strength.” How far do you think this feeling could apply to some of the characters in the novel, that despite everything in their lives, love—or the hope of it—can change things for the better? How far does it parallel Sonny and Nica’s story?

12. Los Flores can be viewed as a microcosm for the greater macrocosm of the world of the city in which it is situated and for that of American society itself. Take a look at the way Cloyd separates his potential tenants into ethnic groups—he romanticizes Mexican women and the Mexican work ethic while his intense prejudice toward blacks manifests itself in a refusal to accept them into his apartment complex. Consider Bud’s hatred of blacks and Mexicans, but his sexual attraction toward Silvia. Talk about the irony of Pink’s act of rebellion against Cloyd. The tensions that exist at Los Flores are expanded upon and paralleled as race riots flare across the city. What do you think Gilb’s view of race and race relations in America is?

13. Cloyd romanticizes Silvia’s Mexican heritage, boasting about her cooking. Consider the irony of her serving him canned salsa and passing it off as her own, and analyze what Gilb might be saying on the nature of cultural authenticity.

14. What do the twins, Joe and Mike, represent? Think about the ways in which they romanticize Sonny’s life, calling him “our pre-conquest warrior hero.” What does Sonny see in them? He affectionately considers them as stupid, these straight-A students with college dreams. In which ways might he be correct in his judgment? Discuss the scene in which the twins are sent by their father to witness the riots. “He was like, are my sons male? If they don’t want to go do any street violence, shouldn’t they want to see it?” Consider how it fits into themes of cultural and racial identity touched upon throughout the novel.

15. There are moments when Sonny commits violent or dishonest acts, eg., beating up an old drunk and stealing his wallet, throwing the stone at the “sickie” who has been stalking him, stealing Cloyd’s money. Discuss whether your feelings toward him evolve or waver at any time. Does he gain your respect for being able to navigate a world that throws so much at him?

16. When Sonny goes to see Mr. and Mrs. Zuniga what do you think he is hungry for? What is their role in the novel?

17. Discuss the leitmotif of Sonny’s determination to learn French and the pleasure that the learning of the language seems to give to him. He states to himself toward the end of the novel that “It was a game I was playing, not a want” (p. 203). But in many ways it has come to represent more. What might it signify to him? Consider his final thoughts about French in the last lines of the novel, “No. Non. That made a smile. I liked that I smiled and that I wasn’t scared.”

18. Find examples of humor in the novel. Certainly the twins and their juvenile jokes undercut some of the tension, and allow Sonny to have an outlet for much needed youthful spontaneous laughter. Are there other elements of humor? Often in life, humor and sadness are not far apart. Can you find instances of this—perhaps in Sonny’s easy baiting of Cloyd and Bud, or in the arguments that Cloyd and Silvia have.

19. Given the stories of fractured love, broken dreams, and human unkindness that crisscross through the novel, it would seem that The Flowers should be deeply depressing, and yet there are flashes of beauty and a deep undercurrent of hope. Discuss. To what extent would you agree that Sonny himself is a symbol of hope with his ability to flit back and forth across different cultural boundaries?

20. The novel ends with a pure moment of love, a selfless act, as Sonny sends Nica by bus to Mexico. Their young love shines bravely against the squalid backdrop of the shabby bus station, above the terrifying commotion of the riots—a romantic and unlikely ending perhaps. Were you able to find truth in their actions, that love and hope can flourish, that sometimes reality can be pushed to one side for a little while? Do you think Sonny believed in the reality of what he was doing or was he playing a game? What do you think the future at Los Flores—and beyond–holds for him? For Nica? How far do you think Sonny was rescuing his mother from her own predicament by liberating Nica?

21. While freeing Nica from the prison that her stepfather has created for her, enabling her to laugh again and to seek out her own freedom, Sonny affects change in himself too. How? Is the act of sending her to Mexico really a selfless one, or is it a way for him to assuage his guilt about stealing Cloyd’s money? How has Sonny grown during the novel? Has he lived up to his mother’s hopes that he will become a man?

22. This novel has a sense of raw urgency to it that might come from Gilb writing very much from personal experience. Discuss the effect that the intensity of his writing had on you. Did you find that the lives of the characters, with their hopes of love and happiness, move from the personal to the universal and in doing so move this novel from the overly narrow confines of Chicano literature into the domain of world literature?

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Drown by Junot Díaz; Ten Little Indians by Sherman Alexie; Gritos by Dagoberto Gilb; Slapboxing with Jesus by Victor LaValle; Chicano by Richard Vasquez; The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros