PEN/O.Henry 2012: Dagoberto Gilb, “Uncle Rock” from The New Yorker, 5/10/10

New Yorker illustration by Paul Pope

New Yorker illustration by Paul Pope

In the morning, at his favorite restaurant, Erick got to order his favorite American food, sausage and eggs and hash-brown papitas fried crunchy on top. He’d be sitting there, eating with his mother, not bothering anybody, and life was good, when a man started changing it all. Most of the time it was just a man staring too much—but then one would come over….
She almost always gave the man her number if he was wearing a suit. Not a sports coat but a buttoned suit with a starched white shirt and a pinned tie meant something to her.

Does this really happen? I mean with such regularity that a kid can’t eat breakfast without getting tangled in Oedipal drama? Breakfast, for god’s sake!

I suppose there are women like this, women with “Looking, apply within” flashing in neon over their heads. This is a child’s-eye view (Erick is 11) of what it’s like to be the child of such a woman. By the end of the story, Erick has grown, in terms of maturity about relationships, way past his mom.

I guess that’s the point of this story, but you can read it online for yourself (it’s only about three pages) and see.

One nice thing about finding New Yorker stories in these anthologies is that there are always lots of past blog entries to check, to see if I’m totally off base and completely missed something when I get to the end and say, “So?” In this case, I found opinion pretty evenly divided. Paul was downright verklempt: “The story has an amazingly unexpected ending….I was delighted by how much I enjoyed this story after how tepid I was about the beginning (and I’m not even a baseball fan).” Tim, not so much: “Overall, this story is a quick read that has some good touches, but doesn’t carry the impact to keep a reader coming back.” Trevor loved it, and I wondered if he read a different story: “The story quickly becomes a child’s perspective of a parent flailing to meet aspirations in a brutal America that doesn’t seem to recognize the American Dream.” I would’ve liked that story, too, but I read the Federico edition, the one that “goes nowhere. Yes, you can fish out tiny specks that, stringed together, show that the main character is changing. But the story’s three short pages require much more patience than they should.”

By the way, where are the women blogging New Yorker stories?

Back to Erick and Uncle Rock. Uncle Rock is actually Roque, not an uncle at all, but he seems like a very nice guy. After mom’s latest suit dumps her, she goes back to Roque. One of the nice touches in this story is how Erick gradually comes around, and by the end sacrifices to save mom from herself, at least temporarily, in the way that children of the dysfunctional, the immature, the addicted, often do.

In his Contributor Note, Gilb admits it’s pretty much an autobiographical story: “When I got a note not unlike the one Erick did, it was one of those pieces of paper that becomes light and moans hymnal, until moments later when I was pissed.” I’m intrigued by a story decision he made: “I made Erick verging on mute, as Mexican Americans are both not heard and trained to feel…” I still don’t quite “get” it, but I can see there’s something there very worth getting. I just wish it was in the story.