The literature of Los Angeles must discern shadows in the sunshine if it hopes to transcend mere entertainment. Héctor Tobar knows this. A native of the city, Tobar knows the dark and the light, the high and the low; he knows the spas and the salvage shops, the wrought iron and the barbed wire; he knows the West Side, the Valley and downtown — and he has put it all into his big new novel, “The Barbarian Nurseries.” Mercifully, Hollywood did not make the cut.
The mixed-race couple at the story’s center is Maureen and Scott Torres-Thompson. Maureen is a Midwestern transplant who, despite a habit of chewing at the ends of her ginger hair, is the picture of composed elegance. Scott is a Stanford-educated software millionaire born of humbler beginnings. Half Mexican (English is his mother tongue), he is by all appearances the embodiment of the American dream. But social ascendancy has come at a price: he is estranged from his father, whose advice — “Never hang your hat where you can’t reach it” — he has pointedly ignored.
Scott and Maureen live high on a hill in a gated community. So much in their palatial home is overwrought, as if to compensate by excess for impoverishments nonmaterial. The children’s room is jampacked with exquisite toys — an Art Deco mobile dangles planets of colored glass, pop-up books produce dragons and castles — but nowhere is their affluence more vividly displayed than in the tropical garden, the book’s central, potent image. Here, banana trees and lush ferns thrive. Such profusion in the arid air of Southern California, a climate better suited to cactuses, owes its survival to Pepe, the Mexican gardener responsible for its maintenance. A foot-wide stream gushes forth with a flick of a switch. “La petite rain forest,” Maureen has taken to calling it, a formulation that carries the whiff of cultural snobbery (Pepe would say pequeña).