I hesitate to describe Alexander Yates’ debut novel Moondogs as surreal. Sure, among others, there’s a retired fighting cock who likes to smoke cigarettes—and who happens to be the sidekick of one meth-addled taxi driver turned inept kidnapper—but, you know, this novel feels strangely home. Its strangeness so familiar but compelling nonetheless. Its strangeness I’ve realized to be so patently Filipino. [Obviously, it is not uncommon to find a feral rooster smoking Philip Morrises in this glorious country. Ahem.]
Is this novel an accurate representative of my country? Does it matter? Heh. But, you know, like all works earnest, I think Moondogs lends an honesty rarely seen, rarely tried—especially by authors technically strangers to the land/culture/people whose stories it dares tell. A factor is the palpable affection to place. Another is the fact that Yates deals with people—in extraordinary circumstances, sure; some of them with supernatural capabilities, yes—but the novel steadfastly holds on to its characters’ emotional and psychological arcs.
But let’s begin with the camp and the cray-cray. Because it’s fun. And this novel is a lot of fun. Ahem. The aforementioned rooster and his owner, who opens the novel in a fine ka-blam entrance worthy of artsy-grainy films:
A man and a rooster exit a taxi idling on a crowded street. The man is short and thin, and the rooster is green, and the rooster belongs to him. The taxi belongs to him as well. He’s wearing a fresh shirt, the blood all washed out, and his polyester slacks shine a little in the afternoon light. He’s too young to be balding but is. His mouth is a rotten mess, owing to bad hygiene and a shabu habit. His name is Ignacio. He and the rooster are villains.
Oh, yeah, there is also an actor-turned-politician—which is, in all seriousness, one of the most common slashie occupations in this country:
Charlie Fuentes stars as Reynato Ocampo, the hardest cop in the country, maybe in the whole damn world. The one and only Mr. Tough Knocks, the Dirty Harry of the Wild Wild East, Old Snaggletooth himself. They’ve all been to movie houses to watch him stick up for the unstuckup for, fixing the nation one dead criminal at a time. They’ve all seen him press Truth, his famous shitspilling pistol, into the foreheads of men who deserve it.
Too awesome for words, especially when you realize that Charlie Fuentes is a composite of every actor who’s decided to put his brusque good looks on campaign posters, to use his easy charm to lull legions of fans into committing his name to a ballot. [Having paid more than my usual attention to the last election dude: the speeches here, how Charlie pounces on drama and vote-mongering? So sweetly real, haha.]
And, dear god, Task Force Ka-Pow, a small, merry band of special operatives who happen to have superpowers and are, thus, truly shitspilling themselves? There’s a shapeshifter, there’s a man who specializes in magic tricks [only, ya know, realer and deadlier], and there’s the group’s official shit magnet—if a bullet’s meant for a teammate, it will always find its way to this poor guy’s chest. And then, of course, there’s Efrem Khalid Bakkar of the Boxer Boys of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, who happens to shoot anything, anyone, from any distance—and making that shot count.
Yes, several times, the novel’s energy comes close to collapsing into itself—this reader flipping pages in a mad dash to figure where the hell I was, when the bleeping shit I’m in actually took place—and the cast lead seemingly disparate lives for most of the novel [although they eventually gather into the spectacle of this novel]. You follow all these characters, superpower-ed and otherwise, and it can be overwhelming to do so; there were plenty of opportunities for Yates to tighten his narrative, or at least his telling. But, demmet, I flipped pages, didn’t I? The fun I was experiencing overshadowed any confusion that I’d suffered.
Mucho characters, mucho energy. But it’s a wonderful contrast and complement between these larger-than-life characters and their more quiet counterparts. There is Monique, US Embassy bigwig-slave, dealing with the pressures of her job, adapting to a culture she’d only experienced very young, and trying to appease a family [especially her “trailing spouse”] itching to get far, far away from this sticky place and its penchant for banana ketchup.
And, you know, at the center of the novel is, after all, Benicio Bridgewater, a man forced to confront the Philippines in all its mad glory, hand-in-hand with the kidnapping of his estranged hotel [and other shady deals]-magnate father. It is Benicio who must reconcile hurts of the past—including the death of a much-loved mother—and even faces off with them in the present. His father’s womanizing ways? The prostitute in his father’s hotel room who, still a stranger the night before, had given him a hard-on. The insistence that he is not his father, god no? See Benicio rubbing shoulders with the country’s political elite, all their whims and caprices, their dangerous slyness, their sheen—the power they convince him he possesses. Moondogs is, essentially, Benicio Bridgewater’s journey. Appropriate, pun-ish name, and all that. Something needs to shake him up, and, yes, by this novel’s lyrically calm conclusion, this poor boy has been shook hard.
But no one is simply larger-than-life, no one is simply a—sorry—a Muggle. The novel insists on digging into these people, uncovering the humanity beneath their assumed roles. And, we realize, along with them, that no one is who they seem. Secrets have been deliberately kept, and, sometimes, we even follow the characters discover things about themselves that they’d rather not discover, or hadn’t even considered. And that’s where Moondogs really hits the mark for me.
The novel—for all its focus on special operatives with superpowers, on the glitz of actors-turned-politicians, on the spectacle of a kidnapping carried out by pseudo-terrorists—insists on grounding itself on questions about family, about home, and how the places we find ourselves in influence our very identity. That’s the earnestness, that’s the bigger risk.
Its realism may be playfully skewed, with comic book tropes turning camp and vice versa, but this book is all heart, with a keen sensitivity to emotional narrative regardless of the spectacles. And yes, it’s so rare to see a novel about the cray-cray capital that is Manila (and I say that with much fondness) as engagingly, as sensitively—as inoffensively, haha—as Yates has crafted.
Beyond being bruhos and token expats and mainstays in seedy-sensational Manila, these are people, ya hear? People who apologize through locked doors, people who keep boxes full of returned letters, people who are sick and tired of “food cooked in vinegar and soy sauce . . . [and] spaghetti with sugar and hotdogs”—people who, dammit, would like to figure out what home means exactly, even for just a single clearest moment, even if through the crosshairs of a sniper rifle’s viewfinder.
Oh, and that cover? I want that on a shirt.
PSA – With mucho thanks to National Bookstore, who slipped this book in the mail for me, I’ll a wonderful opportunity to scare the bejeebies out of interview Alexander Yates about Moondogs. Check back soon, kids.