"Buffalo Nickel," the autobiography of Oakland novelist Floyd Salas, may be one of the most remarkable memoirs of the decade, not least because the people who live the sort of life he's seen seldom have the verbal skill to record it.
Salas was born in Colorado in 1930 to a working-class Spanish family. There were four children besides himself, and his father's search for steady employment led them to move to Oakland when Floyd was still a little boy. His father was a tireless worker, and eventually became a successful restaurateur; his ailing mother was revered by all the children as a kind of saint, but she lacked the strength to keep close watch on her brood. As a result, the children--except for the oldest brother Eddie, who put himself through college--mostly raised themselves on the streets.
Floyd, the youngest boy, was powerfully drawn to his brother Al, nine years older. Al was one of those kids with too much energy for his own good. He couldn't keep out of trouble, but his perennial hustling and grand-standing, combined with his good looks, generated an excitement that made him irresistible to both men and women. On top of which, Al could handle himself with his fists so well that he was virtually swept up into the career of professional boxer. The trouble with Al, though, was that he couldn't really return all the love showered on him, especially the devotion of his adoring little brother Floyd. Always desperate to keep out of the clutches of the law, and later to raise enough money to feed his heroin habit, Al simply could not spare the time or energy to care for others as they cared for him.
Salas establishes the paradigm of his lifelong relationship with Al in a neat little vignette early in the book. One day at the gym, Al coaxes Floyd to fight another boy's younger brother. It is one of those rituals that are supposed to prove the courage and manliness of a particular clan, but all little Floyd gets out of it is a broken nose. To make it up to him, Al gives him a Buffalo nickel, then rides Floyd home on the handlebars of his bicycle. But before they get into the house, with Floyd's nose still dripping blood, Al asks him for the nickel back.
"Buffalo Nickel" is one of those books whose power is hard to suggest with just a brief quote. Its overwhelming impact comes from the accumulation of an immense amount of detail, composed of the sights and sounds and daily rhythms of underclass life in mid-century America. It is reminiscent of James Agee's classic portrait of Alabama sharecroppers, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," in the way it makes you live moment to moment almost as if you are inside the skins of its illiterate, inarticulate characters.
Salas' hard-hitting, no-frills style of prose is just what is called for here. As we watch Al sink further and further into the nether world of Oakland's petty street crime and bunco rackets, it would be easy for Salas to lose the reader in the sordidness of his subject were he not also able to convey the intense weight of reality that pins these characters to their miserable fates. In the way he captures the grim inevitability of repeated failures, he conveys something more than the tongue-clicking pity that is usually reserved for such characters, and at times hits an authentic note of tragedy.
Salas succeeds in arousing our compassion for these characters by revealing, beneath their belligerent boasting and close-lipped swagger, a core of vulnerability. One such moving scene occurs when Floyd, unseen by Al, watches his brother getting ready to be released from the county courthouse: "He rubbed soap between his palms as he stood up against the iron bars. The jail office was a clean, pale green. Al had on his cabdriver's uniform of olive-drabwool, short-waisted Eisenhower jacket and pants, very much like the army uniform he used to wear. I hoped he'd look up and see my face in the hall window. But he never looked over. He didn't look at anybody. His face was stiff and silent, wounded, as if his pride was hurt, as if he was deeply angry about being bossed around. But he kept his anger down inside the jail, because he knew he was getting bailed out. I'd rarely seen him like that. Al wouldn't take anything from anybody. I was afraid he'd lost his job, too."
If Al's life is an endless series of hassles that usually revolve around making money, Floyd's dilemma is of a much more philosophical and moral nature. From the beginning, Floyd finds himself torn between wanting to emulate Al--in fact, he becomes quite a good semipro boxer himself--and trying to live up to the example of his "perfect" brother Eddy. Like Al, Eddy proved his courage by learning to fight with his hands, and like Al, Eddy served in the military during World War II. But Eddy went on to become a successful pharmacist in San Francisco, taking on a portly, genteel appearance, and bringing pride, not shame, to the family name.