"The Barbarian Nurseries": L.A. Lovingly Satirized With Tense Comedy

In The Barbarian Nurseries, his affectionate satire of class, race, and housework in Orange County, Héctor Tobar aspires to Tom Wolfe or Dickens, but winds up just north of James L. Brooks.

That ain't necessarily bad.

Like Wolfe and Dickens, he sums characters up in a quick, comic glance so that he might hustle on to the gratifying business of exposing the chasms between neighbors. But like Brooks — the writer and director of Terms of Endearment and Spanglish — Tobar loves all his people, so he distinguishes even the worst of them with a saving grace or two.

Deep in the book, a white anti-immigration activist — who feeds on outrage like a tick on blood — deepens the troubles of our protagonist, Araceli, a Mexican maid caught up in the kind of media spectacle upon which satirical novels depend. Tobar sketches the angry activist's life in the well-planed, rarely strained prose that he has developed over his years as a Los Angeles Times columnist. Just a couple pages later, his nativist scold commands our empathy.

Tobar lavishes so much attention on the minor players that he sometimes loses the dramatic thrust, which comes down to one killer image: undocumented houseworker Araceli crisscrossing central L.A. via bus with two white suburban kids. But the comedy leading to and following from that odyssey is arresting enough to forgive Tobar's momentum-stunting kindnesses.

In fact, his greatest achievement in The Barbarian Nurseries is not its feel-good social-studies introductions to the people in your neighborhood; it's in the niceties of his plotting. With great inventiveness and detail, he captures the way a half-dozen small disasters can heap up into a huge one. Early in the book, Tobar devotes his considerable energies to the lives of the Torres-Thompsons, a well-to-do couple with two kids, three household staff, and escalating money problems (and a last name to emphasize how close/distant Angelenos can be from each other).

Tobar pairs up high comedy and serious tension in a scene in which Scott Torres tries to cover an employee lunch on a credit card maxed out by Maureen, his wife. This leads to an argument ugly enough to inspire both parents to flee the house for a few days. Due to Tobar's machinations, each a little clockwork trap, neither parent realizes they've left the kids with Araceli, the stoic maid, a rich and compelling character untrained in the rules of suburban American childhood.

Days pass, Araceli takes to the streets to find a relative, and all hell breaks loose. A sequence in which a wire report and a sleepy blogger turn Araceli's story from curio to shitstorm is stellar: Tobar nails the unsettling way that a mistake in reporting can deeply influence subsequent coverage. So let's be as accurate as possible here: The Barbarian Nurseries is a grand, amusing read, a mad and sprawling city's less-mad but still sprawling apologia.

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