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American Son: A Novel Paperback – May 17, 2001

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Hard-hitting and brash, this debut novel takes a cold, clear-eyed look at the American immigrant experience. Come home, urges Uncle Betino in a letter from Manila at the beginning of Roley's tale. But Betino's sister Ika, divorced from her American husband and living in the U.S. with her two sons born in the Philippines, believes even the harsh struggle to survive in California is better than living under the strict caste system of her homeland. One of her boys, Tomas, has assumed the persona of a young Mexican street thug and is helping her make ends meet by raising and selling guard dogs to rich clients. His brother, Gabe, the story's narrator and the good son, seeks to understand the mysteries of his adopted country. Roley uses the familiar Cain-and-Abel approach to illustrate the occasionally vicious tug of wills between the two youths, whose relationship is being slowly altered by the outside forces of the alien American culture. Formerly deemed a mama's boy, Gabe runs away, stealing his brother's prized Oldsmobile and best dog, trying to escape his brother's growing influence. It's not long before he is back home, ashamed and ready to submit to the will of both his brother and America. His mother looks on sadly as both of her boys are swallowed up by the American dream and the promise of the prosperous life at all costs. Despite rare lulls in the plot and an occasional glitch in the novel's overall strong structure, this is a powerhouse story of vulnerable strangers in a brutal, alien land told with stylish restraint, bare-knuckled realism and tender yet tough clarity.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

In his debut novel, Roley details the Filipino immigrant experience through the troubled relationship between two brothers and their struggle to assimilate into the culture of Southern California. Gabe, the younger of the two, serves as his family's peacemaker, struggling to maintain good grades while hiding brother Tomas' dangerous activities from his mother. Tomas has adopted the Mexican gangster style of dress and breeds attack dogs that he sells to the Hollywood celebrities who inhabit the fringes of their lives. When Gabe runs away to Northern California, he finds temporary solace in the kindness of strangers: the tow truck driver whose chatty nature belies his own hidden pain; the tart-tongued diner waitress who has family problems of her own. However, when Gabe returns home, he must face the consequences from the increasingly violent Tomas. Roley never judges his characters but rather shows the pain and anger that propel their actions. His clipped and poetic style serves the novel well, and readers will be compelled to follow this tale to its violent and ambiguous conclusion. Brendan Dowling
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition (May 17, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393321541
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393321548
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #635,375 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Brian Ascalon Roley is the award-winning author of American Son: a novel (WW Norton), which was a Los Angeles Times Best Book, New York Times Notable Book, Kiriyama Pacific Rim Prize Finalist and recipient of the Association for Asian American Studies Prose Book Award in 2003, among other honors. Roley's work has also been featured in the California Council for the Humanities Statewide Reading Campaign of 2004, and has been taught in many classrooms around the country and internationally.

His fiction, literary essays and poetry have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Mixed: An Anthology of Short Fiction on the Multiracial Experience (WW Norton), and Charlie Chan is Dead 2: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction (Penguin).

His website is

A recent Visiting Fellow at the University of Cambridge, Roley has held residencies at Djerassi, Ragdale and VCCA. He is currently an English professor at Miami University of Ohio and spends most of his time with his family in Cincinnati and California.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 10, 2001
Format: Paperback
Beautifully written. I originally didn't want to read this book because it looked like a gang novel, but my girlfriend told me it was good. After I got into it I couldn't put it down. It is a really sad, at times painfully so, book. I really got caught up in the characters and the mistakes they would make. I am a Pilipino and found a lot here that resembled my own life growing up, like being ashamed of my own culture and feeling like Filipinos are invisible. The tragedy about these characters is that they suffer from a lack of pride. The mother is especially sad and endearing. This isn't the sort of Asian Ameican novel I've seen before, full of rice and orientalism for the NPR crowd. It's real and honest.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 29, 2001
Format: Paperback
I agree with the New York Times reviewer who called this book gripping and heartbreaking. His reading emphasizes "American Son" as a complex look at racism, one that follows two biracial Filipino brothers living in LA a year after the Rodney King Riots. He also notes the complex characters. I would add that this novel is far more than a book about race or ethnicity. It is about mothers and sons, rivalry between brothers, family love, pride and shame, class and envy. It is most of all about shyness. I am surprised to see so many reader reviews by Filipinos. This book is not the sort of comforting Asian American book which follows the tradition of Amy Tan, ones that typically romanticize Asian culture and subscribe to a mythology of an exotic homecountry. Rather it seems to fall more in the tradition of American immigration novels with their themes of assimilation. It inhabits the tradition of such Jewish authors as Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, in whose novels you do not find much Yiddish speech or food or quaint stories about the homeland, but whose characters are nonetheless very Jewish, even as they have local concerns. You should not expect to find Filipino Cultural Night here. That is not the point. I have noticed a couple of other books released this year which also eschew the temptation to romanticize (orientalize?) the Asian homeland, "Fixer Chao" by Han Ong, and "Yellow" by Don Lee, also fine books. If Roley owes much to Roth and Bellow in terms of theme, his poetic and lyrical style owes more to Cormack McCarthy, Dennis Johnson, Russell Banks and Ernest Hemmingway. Like those authors he is able to use language to subtly enter the depths of his characters' feelings and pain, gradually accumulating an intense power.Read more ›
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 24, 2001
Format: Paperback
The story of this novel does not come with any clean resolution - rather, it portrays a vicious circle of hopelessness, violence, and unstable identities in multicultural Los Angeles. Roley's spare prose carries both the minute observations and the vulnerability of a teenager forced to grow up too quickly without a father and with an insecure, overworked mother losing her grip on her family.
We see Gabe, the narrator, cower before his brother Tomas' abusive behaviour and anger, eventually becoming attracted to his way of life. Their helpless mother can only watch in despair; however, her resolve strengthens only when she resists her brother's repeated requests to send the two back to Philippines to straighten them out. They probably would not have fared well there anyway, for Gabe and Tomas take considerable pains to deny their maternal Filipino heritage in an environment that only knows Black, Latino, Asian, or White - no hybrid identities here.
Roley's debut novel is a disturbing, yet compelling read, another emerging voice in Filipino-American letters to watch out for.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Fred Zappa on December 29, 2005
Format: Paperback
Good read, and a quick one, but I think you should avoid reading it TOO quickly. The author's style has been compared to Cormac McCarthy's writing, but I agree more with an earlier reviewer here who wrote of this novel's "Hemingwayesque power."

Hemingway wrote with an "Iceberg Theory" in mind, meaning that something like making sure that 9/10 of the story was submerged out of sight. If the writer does this well, the reader can feel something like the grace and gravity of an iceberg because this untold part of the story is still evident somehow, still felt by the reader. It's often an emotional weight, and BA Roley conveys that heaviness especially well here. A character in this novel comments of another, "sometimes the quiet ones have the more mysterious anxieties inside that are difficult for the rest of us to understand." He's commenting on someone other than the central character, but the portrayal of the protagonist here (Gabe) has that same tragic mystery about him. There's a lot more going on with him than a quick reader might realize.

I was surprised by the ending, but I realized later that it's the perfect way to end the book. So many good people are lost to the brutality around them.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 16, 2003
Format: Paperback
I read this novel as one of nine books, all of which came out in 2001, assigned in a class on recent popular literature. I rank it as either number one or two in terms of artistic value, enjoyment, and thoughtfulness.
As "(hyphenated)-American" literature, this novel served as a welcome respite from typical "minority literature," the study of which cultural imperative requires in many instances where emotional appeal abuses the reader who deserves intellectual provocation.
Gabe describes with a rich and diverse view the complexities of life as an ethnic Asian living in California. His story tells itself, and he hesitates to cast judgments in black-and-white; he doesn't try to turn these complexities into something simpler than they really are. For this we owe the author credit for the fairness and depth with which he treats serious social problems and the way in which these problems.
Although I felt the novel lacked enough character development by my usual standard, I think that I did take away a deep impression of the types of problems the characters overall and Gabe, in particular, experience as a part of everyday life; the issues presented here may be well applied to not only Asian-Americans or minorities, but also to anyone who faces problems with self-definition and placement within a world in which he or she feels a stranger.
In addition to the novel's content, the very internal, indirect style of first person narration gives is distinct and appropriately applied to the author?s objective. The understated, quiet tone of the prose comes as a welcome relief from the noisy, plot-overloaded, and often downright obnoxious form of all too many popular works.
Roley treats the reader with respect in that he does not gratify with ...
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