The Barbarian Nurseries

By Héctor Tobar (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011)

Héctor Tobar’s The Barbarian Nurseries is a grand and scintillating tour of West Coast class warfare. Tobar, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times journalist, wastes no time in his second novel marrying the iniquities and inequalities of Southern California with lush passages that recall the prosy panache of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis.

In an affluent, gated-off section of Orange County, a bi-cultural couple has yet to successfully come to terms with the recession that is robbing them of undocumented domestics and rare plants. They furiously part ways in the aftermath of a declined credit card and the purchase of costly flora. Scott Torres and his wife Maureen (the couple go by the hyphenated Torres-Thompson) have come to the end of an economy that they assumed was inevitable and ongoing. Hapless yuppies who have hitherto dealt with their marital and monetary woes with either silence or punch-the-wall violence, the couple struggles like tycoons before an economic collapse, in a dangerous fugue of denial. They need to break away from one another other before breaking more glass coffee tables.

So Scott splits the scene with a secretary, while Maureen grabs their baby daughter and whatever money she can wrest from a piggy bank and heads to a spa. Each assuming the other will stay home, Scott and Maureen abandon their two young boys to the service of their maid Araceli Ramirez, an immigrant worker who has gained weight and lost her wits in a land of a low wage opportunity. Araceli, who doesn’t even like kids, is a stifled woman in her waning twenties who under different circumstances could have been an artist. She adorns the ceiling above her bed with assemblages of plastic utensils and string and serves chi chi Mexican cuisine to guests who bemoan the presence of Mexicans in Southern California. When her employers show no sign of returning home, she ends up having to clean more up than the house when she takes charge and decides that the boys should be taken to the home of their grandfather in Los Angeles, thus commencing in a trek that will remind some readers of Luis Alberto Urrea’s Into the Beautiful North.

Tobar’s prose, abounding in kitsch as well as class consciousness, illumines the stresses and the speed of life on either side of the border: “Time worked more aggressively in the heart of an American city than in a Mexican city, where colonial structures breezed through the centuries without much difficulty. Here, cement, steel, and brick began to surrender after just a decade or two of abandonment.”

The Barbarian Nurseries seems presciently informed by the current immigration nightmare policies as well as the on-going occupy everything movement. Focusing as he does on the character of an intelligent immigrant amid the wild disparities of an economically uneven LA, Tobar has something absolutely civilizing to say about both North and South America, as well as our own two Americas.


By Robert Ontiveros