In the boys’ high school where I went, we had to read a series of coming-of-age stories – “The Catcher in the Rye,” “A Separate Peace,” and “Candido’s Apocalypse” – presumably because we were just as angst-ridden as the teen-age male protagonists (I hesitate to call these self-centered youths heroes), and we needed help navigating the adolescent swamp of emotions.
The sappy plots of each of these “young adult” books were propelled by the main characters’ obsession with finding honesty in a world of phony adults. Bobby Heredia in Nick Joaquin’s “Candido’s Apocalypse” even used certain superpowers to see through people’s clothes, a teen’s wet fantasy that would go awry.
The problem with these stories, I’ve now realized with the hindsight of 40 plus years, is how disconnected they seemed from their contemporary worlds. Were teens back then really walking cocoons oblivious to everything except for the people directly around them? Was there not a larger world of phony politicians who did things that disturbed those cocoons? That world was of course always there, but to the unwoke generations of the '50s and '60s, perhaps that didn’t matter nearly as much as the irritations inside fragile adolescent bubbles.
Fast forward to 2019 and the arrival of a sensational new young adult novel that exposes readers to the fire that is Duterte’s drug war.
In “Patron Saints of Nothing,” the teen’s cocoon is stripped off like a fresh scab.
Jay Reguero is a 17-year-old Filipino-American living in Midwest suburbia and waiting for college to start, when bad news comes from family in the Philippines.
His favorite cousin Jun was murdered mysteriously, followed by whispered rumors that it had something to do with the drug war. Information is scant; family members on both sides of the Pacific don’t want to talk about it.
This was the same cousin of the same age who alone among his relatives had comforted a heartbroken Jay as a child when a puppy died, even as all the adults were amused by the boy’s sentimentality.
Now on the cusp of adulthood himself, a distraught Jay persuades his parents to allow him to take a vacation home alone. He would stay with various relatives, with a secret plan to learn what happened to Jun.
Jay’s journey is the reader’s crash course on what the Philippines has become in the last three years.
It’s also Filipino-American author Randy Ribay’s struggle to make sense of his and his protagonist’s mixed identity — a sensibility rooted in the predictable comforts of middle-class America clashing with the maddening injustices of daily life in the Philippines, where one cannot even cross the street without fear of getting run over.
It’s a common theme explored in Philippine diaspora literature where Filipinos born and raised overseas are drawn to experience and write about the confounding contradictions of the homeland; the warmth of family and ordinary people coupled with an often oppressive civic and political culture.
Ribay’s take is not the perspective of a Duterte supporter. Yet he neatly sums up the gamut of Filipino viewpoints, all captured within Jay’s own family, from his migrant father’s indifference to his police uncle’s imperious defense of drug killings, to a lesbian tita’s activist sympathy for the downtrodden. There’s also a priest-uncle who needs a dose of moral courage. It’s only a cousin even younger than Jay who doggedly follows her conscience.
The only heroes in the novels in this genre are teen-agers who in their naïveté believe nobility can end wars, or at least unmask fraud.
But the drug war is complicated, with many ordinary people we know applauding the killings that are still happening as you read these words.
So this novel burns with a purpose, lighting a new avenue for more audiences to understand an ongoing atrocity.
The young balikbayan Jay arrives after years of being away and is shocked by what many Filipinos find normal even if they know it’s morally abhorrent. That goes for the seeming invisibility of household help even if they’re always around, and all the other grotesque signs of social inequality.
The device of deploying innocent reactions to everyday outrages is Ribay’s clever way of introducing unfamiliar readers to what must be one of the world’s most feudalistic societies.
But it also forces those of us immersed in it to reconsider it in a new light. If this guy from suburban Michigan is so intent on finding out what is really happening in the drug war, shouldn’t we?
Like one of the hyper-curious Hardy boys from my youth, Jay stumbles upon clues that lead him to revelations about his cousin’s fate and Jun’s undercover resistance to the drug war. Accompanying him on this sleuthing, and fulfilling the genre’s requirement of an awkward teen romance, is his street-smart, Visayan-speaking love interest Mia.
Mia is a journalism student who introduces Jay to her mentor, a ruthlessly trolled investigative journalist who gives Jay a walking master class on what it takes to find out the truth in the Philippines, and concludes by dramatically asking, “Tell me, Jay Reguero, are you willing to die to find out what happened to your cousin?”
Jun comes alive through a trove of reflective letters he wrote to Jay over several years, reproduced throughout the narrative. Interspersed with typical juvenile silliness in the letters are the shots of fearless authenticity that Jay finds lacking even in his most compassionate adult relatives.
In his last letter to Jay, his cousin confides, “I don’t want to be another one of those people who just pretends like they don’t know about the suffering, like they don’t see it every single day, like they don’t walk past it on their way to school or work. I wonder, do you ever feel like this?”
Jay never wrote back. It took Jun’s death for his cousin to finally respond.
In the age of email and messaging apps, the role of handwritten letters in their relationship is a quaint shout-out to a time before the Internet scattered everyone’s brains.
Their brotherly love evokes the friendships at the core of most of these novels. Like them, “Patron Saints of Nothing” idealizes the young as the only real, humane humans in the room. Jun, in his letters, comes off as wise beyond his years, unrealistically precocious even. I never knew anyone like that, but I wish I did.
But we do know the drug war that took his promising life. After three years, drug killings have become so normal they barely make the news.
A rare book comes along that reminds us that the commonplace should shock us still.
In an exasperated moment, Jay tells himself in classic genre fashion, “All of the adults are failing us.”
The timeless message to readers is, you will all be adults soon, and you need not be like everybody else. — LA, GMA News
“Patron Saints of Nothing” is a finalist in the US’s 2019 National Book Awards