‘The Barbarian Nurseries’ and the Politics of Suburbia

Héctor Tobar’s story of a domestic worker reveals fault lines of race and class across Southern California’s planned communities.

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From one perspective or another, all our lives are narrow,” writes D.J. Waldie in Holy Land, his great memoir of growing up in Lakewood, California, one of the earliest planned communities in the United States. “Only when lives are placed side by side do they seem larger.” This is Waldie the writer speaking, but as a product of Lakewood, he probably knew otherwise. After all, suburbia, by its very design, presents a challenge to the enlargements of side-by-side living. Even where plots are small, separateness is what suburbia sells—that and, paradoxically, a sameness meant to evoke dependability: “In Southern California it didn’t make any difference anyhow where you went,” Philip K. Dick memorably writes in A Scanner Darkly, “there was always the same McDonaldburger place over and over, like a circular strip that turned past you as you pretended to go somewhere.”

What would Dick make of suburbia today? Or Waldie, for that matter? After all, many people keep dreaming—or hearing the dream—of the suburbs, in spite of all the analysis proclaiming the opposite. Suburbia hasn’t ended. It just looks different. There are more taco trucks on many streets than burger joints on corners. And what began as sundown towns, in America, where only whites were allowed, are now often intensely, globally diverse. The juxtaposition Waldie called us toward takes on a whole new meaning when descendants of immigrants from Mexico, Iran, and the Philippines live side by side in near-gated communities, as they do throughout California.

It took a journalist with the heart of a 19th-century novelist to find the possibilities—and dangers—in this change, and by God does Héctor Tobar fit the bill. A reporter and former Mexico City bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, Tobar has in the past 20 years transformed himself into one of the United States’ leading social novelists. His 2011 epic, The Barbarian Nurseries, is to the American suburbs what Émile Zola’s Germinal was to coal mining in France in the 19th century. It uncovers what’s there to see for anyone who cares to look and regards the scene with complexity and depth and a political edge. It’s also a clinic in the use of a free indirect, roving point of view, showing us that perhaps it isn’t juxtaposition among the houses in suburbia but within them where enlargement can be found.

The book opens at the sunblasted home of Scott and Maureen Torres-Thompson in Laguna Rancho Estates, high up over the Pacific, 10 miles from Irvine. You know things are bad because Scott—tech entrepreneur, descendant of a Mexican immigrant to the city—is mowing his own lawn. Shortly, it emerges that the family is financially overstretched and some abridgments to their lifestyle are being made. Two of their three domestic workers have already been let go, leaving only Araceli, the thoughtful, creative beating heart of this book, to do virtually everything. It’s through her that the action of the book unfolds.

She is full of longing, resentments, pretensions, and a tangible, confusing love for the children.

Tobar makes the most of Araceli’s being at once at the center of the family, raising the three children, making the house work, and also off to the side—there but not there—which is how Scott and Maureen, who did not grow up with domestic help, deal with the small shames of how they treat her. They regard her as a sphinx and refer to her in private as Little Miss Sunshine, as if her thoughts were entirely unknowable or unreadable.

In the opening pages, we cycle through the house, inhabiting everyone’s private domestic prison: Scott, burdened by the debt he has taken on to create this lifestyle; Maureen, by feelings she hasn’t truly made a home, since it’s both paid for and made by others. Tobar even briefly cycles through the points of view of some guests to the house, from whose perspectives we glean passing glimpses of Araceli, whom they think of as an unsmiling brute force: part of the labor supporting those who are living well.

But Araceli is far more than a mask. She is full of longing, small resentments, pretensions, and a tangible, confusing love for the children who are not hers. She is far more than her work. She attended art school in Mexico City, and through her eyes we see everyone in the book in living color. Has a novelist since Jorge Amado used such a broad palette to describe people’s skin color? From the “mestizo-skinned” guest of the family who comes to visit to a man Araceli meets outside the home with the “blackish bronzed hands of a man who earns his living outdoors,” Tobar conjures Los Angeles into life.

Nowhere more so than in the opening sequence, a children’s party complete with a bouncy castle and swimming sessions that unfolds with all the froth and chaos of the wedding sequence in The Deer Hunter. Visitors arrive in all shades of skin color, with all eye shapes, and some with Spanish-language proficiency even. They think of themselves as a new kind of 21st-century Americana, beyond race almost, or so Tobar writes. Some get drunk. And most of them arrive, to Araceli’s continued shock, right on time, not as people do in Mexico City.

The next week, Araceli has off, and so Tobar follows her to a party across town, a mere hour by bus, to Santa Ana for a quinceañera. There, among the “brass-buckled astronauts” and mahogany-skinned teenagers of a Friday-night party, we see Araceli as she would be without this job. Flirtatious, confident, curious, never mediated by a language she doesn’t speak. And then she goes back to work on Monday, realizing she has made a terrible bargain.

“Araceli saw her standing in the world with a new and startling clarity,” Tobar writes. “She lived with English-speaking strangers, high on a hill alone with the huge windows and the smell of solvents, and lacked the will to escape what she had become. She quietly accepted the Torres-Thompsons’ money and the room they gave her, and they felt free to make her do anything they asked.”

The comparison these two parties draw out is a familiar and highly effective narrative technique of Tobar’s across three decades of work. He began his career as a metro reporter in Los Angeles, crisscrossing the city talking to mothers of victims of drive-by shootings. Then driving back into his own slightly safer suburb, always aware that but for a turn of fate his life would be different. Tobar won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for his coverage of the L.A. uprising that year. He set his debut novel, The Tattooed Soldier, in the buildup to this time period, showing how a man from Guatemala brings his past into the city’s new context.

As a writer of books, Tobar has always excelled in portraiture. In his hands one sees the chiaroscuro an epic journey can paint into the life of an individual. It’s an effect he created to great dramatic result in his two works of nonfiction: Translation Nation, which chronicled a Tocqueville-like journey Tobar took around the United States talking to Latino people, from Atlanta to Salt Lake City, and Deep Down Dark, his harrowing book about 33 trapped Chilean miners and how they got free. Even more remarkable than the various journeys that brought those men there that day is how they survived. “I think that sometimes the only thing that can make you laugh,” one of them says, “is accepting the idea that there’s no way out.”

In these books, Tobar emerges as a miniaturist who understands—is possessed by—entrapment and enclosure. An arcing journey is not uncommon for many people: how they deal with an inability to escape, that is where you see into their full character. As in all his books, the enclosure at the center of The Barbarian Nurseries bursts. Scott, upon realizing his financial future is sunk, goes on a 48-hour video game–playing binge with a female coworker, causing a huge domestic row. Maureen, exhausted from the pressure of her own standards, flees to a High Desert spa with her youngest child, Samantha, in tow; meanwhile, the two boys and Araceli are left at home alone. It’s an astonishing abandonment, and yet, because Tobar has been such a close observer of Araceli’s work and how the house is run, it’s utterly believable. Scott and Maureen have always treated their children as part of their lifestyle. When that lifestyle threatens to drown them, of course they might try to take a vacation from it, knowing that Araceli will take care of everything.

One doesn’t have to squint hard to see the sundown towns from another era lurking in the plot.

The Barbarian Nurseries is an old-fashioned novel about modern times—moral questions are not just its blood, they form its circulatory system, too. What does responsibility mean in a world of perpetual transplantation? It’s a question the title hints at, referring as it does to the nurseries that service the Torres-Thompsons’ struggling desert garden. Just before Scott and Maureen escape in opposite directions, Maureen hires workers to rip out the succulents lovingly planted by her former gardener and replace them with new plants, including an ocotillo rescued from a developer in Palm Springs. For the briefest of moments, Maureen ponders the metaphysics of such a purchase, and then basks in the pride it allows her. Property: a living thing. It’s not hard to see how this attitude extends to a domestic worker like Araceli.

Scott and Maureen’s abandonment of two of their children winds up formalizing the role Araceli has played all along: she is their guardian. Only now, she must make decisions alone. When she realizes Scott and Maureen have left the boys behind and may not come back, she decides to take them to their grandfather’s house. All she has to go on is an address on the back of a photograph from 1954. West 39th Street. The kids, trapped themselves in a house that was meant to be a castle of enrichment, thrill to this unexpected journey. And thus The Barbarian Nurseries becomes one of the most amazing road-trip novels in American literature. It doesn’t tell the story of a wild ride down Route 66, just that of a domestic worker with two white children in tow, trying to get across Los Angeles, stopping Odysseus-like at stations along the way.

Tobar’s chronicle of Araceli’s journey is vivid, almost magical. Araceli and the children see new things together, filling in gaps in their educations. She takes them to the Laguna Niguel station, and they climb aboard a train for just the second time in their lives. As they pass over the river, which she points out to them, they see homeless Angelenos for the first time, which she also points out. Then they get lost and their trip grows harder, scarier, but also more like the quest it has begun to feel like. They are put up one night by strangers. Araceli becomes ever more their protector: she is wary, she is brave, and by the time she arrives someplace she feels is safe, she isn’t hailed as an unsung heroine but is suddenly all over the news as a kidnapper.

Tobar has worked in the media long enough to know how explosive the situation Araceli has found herself in would be, especially seen from the outside, juiced by the updrafts of fear and xenophobia that swirl online. “The story of the two missing boys from one of the richest neighborhoods in Orange County gathered mass and momentum,” he writes, and in one bravura paragraph, he tracks its evolution from a small local item to a Miami Beach news aggregator lead item: “CLOSE THE BORDER! CALIFORNIA BOYS IN ALIEN KIDNAP DRAMA.”

One doesn’t have to squint hard to see the sundown towns from another era lurking in the plot of The Barbarian Nurseries. The only difference in Tobar’s world is that the rules of exclusion are now simply employment norms that operate most harshly on vulnerable people, people who are seen but never quite seen. The workers who keep the fantasy alive by powering the big box dream machines, the houses of the upwardly mobile—some of them former dreamers, some of them the descendants of dreamers. It’s a barbaric caste system indeed, and this powerful novel stands nearly alone in U.S. literature in not just calling it out, but giving us a narrative, and a heroine, capacious enough to realize there are finer, more enlarging qualities still alive in people. It just sometimes takes extreme situations, the book suggests, to unlock them.•

Join us on December 16 at 5 p.m., when Tobar will be in conversation with California Book Club host John Freeman and a special guest. Click here to register.

John Freeman is the host of the California Book Club.
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