Three good reasons for reading Kerima Polotan’s The True and the Plain

Move over, Charice Pempengco.
Kerima Polotan is here — she’s been here for more than the past half-century actually — and it’s about time an intelligent, sophisticated, accomplished, and articulate Filipina gets some credit, airtime, and probably even some online publicity via this website (however few the page views and visitors).
Sure, Ms. Polotan is already a senior citizen and may not have a botoxed jaw or the promise of worldwide fame.
Except that I don’t care about Charice and I haven’t seen Glee and that may be a major major oversight for someone who carries a Philippine passport.
So pardon me kids, but I’m placing all my bets on Ms. Polotan.
Unconfirmed reports indicate that she’s currently in hermit mode, refusing friends to visit her.
But that’s a choice — and a fundamental right — no one can deprive her of.
In the same way that no right-thinking, literate Filipino should ever deprive himself/herself by choosing to ignore her work.
So if you have the chance to read any two books this year, you better grab Ms. Polotan’s Author’s Choice and the True and the Plain from the University of the Philippines Press.
Sure, she wrote a hagiography of Imelda Marcos and may have been part of the delegation when the Marcos family left in 1986.
Does that mean her essays are worthless?
Absolutely not.
Reading Kerima Polotan will make you proud of being a Filipino more than Venus Raj or Charice Pempengco ever will.
But I talk too much.
And so now, here are my three good reasons why you should read Polotan’s The True and The Plain: A Collection of Personal Essays, which were previously published in Focus Philippines Magazine from the early 1970s to the early 1980s. (Also: thanks to Red Constantino for introducing me to one of my favorite writers of all time.)

1) It will transport you to a Manila that we have never known about — and perhaps never will.

Taken in February 1986 at the Luneta (express000/

Do you know what a Matorco is?
I do.
But that’s because I read the book and came across the term in her essay entitled “My Misbegotten Christmas.”
Thanks to Google and Flickr, I discovered that a Matorco is a double-decker bus that used to ply Roxas Boulevard.
Polotan wrote that she rode it one December night with her children and husband, Johnny Tuvera, who was an aide of Ferdinand Marcos.
And that bus — and the ride that could have provided special thrills to cynical urban dwellers such as myself — is long gone.
Same goes for the many panciterias and restaurants that have disappeared from the city, eating the dust left over by monolithic fastfood chains, local and otherwise.
Who recalls having lunch at Wa Nam, Moderna, and New England?
How about Texas Cafe in Malate, which catered to colegialas? Or the Waldorf Astoria also in the same area?
No one remembers anymore. (I was just an infant during that time. Yes, seriously.)
It’s about time someone did.
And reading about these establishments through Polotan’s pieces is just one of the many ways by which we can celebrate — and perhaps even express regret over — the little lost treasures of our country’s capital.
Below is her take on Luneta, from The Happy Hoi Polloi:

“In the Luneta, all colors blend ‚ the brown and the white and yellow of people; the green and blue and red of shrubs. Towards the sea, the great sward stretches, and the globes of light hang like huge pearls, are caught in the waters of the lake. People flow by, stop and eddy, break and whirl again. Across the pond, a band plays; a balloon breaks loose from some child’s grasp and floats towards an early star. Here, the land lies flat and green, broken only by stone; there, it rises in a series of small hills that hide the curving tips of a pagoda. The doves come, cooing and beating their wings around a man, dressed in a tiger’s suit, and giving away candy. The lovers try not to be conspicuous. A family spreads the contents of a bag — kropeck, juice, biscuits. One mother lies on a mat, unashamedly nursing her baby. On other mats, men and their wives, kicking their heels at the sky. The park guards  watch when they can but soon grow weary and give up. The sky is like a canvas washed clean, gray along the edges, and you think, looking over the heads around you, how distant the heat of living is — tonight’s dishes, tomorrow’s bundy clock. Joy is a fitful moment, but better that than nothing.”

2) It will make you appreciate literature — especially Philippine literature — better.

Abraham “Abe” Cerojano, my former editor-in-chief at GMANews.TV, happened to work under Polotan as a proofreader of the Evening Post, a newspaper she edited and which I remember reading as a kid whenever I visited my mother’s office in one of Escolta’s side streets.
Polotan was a very good writer, said my boss, who is himself famous for writing the news story about the failed assassination attempt against the late vice-president Emmanuel Pelaez, whom he quoted. [See: What is happening to our country, General?]
I don’t doubt my boss one bit.
Reading Polotan allows you to encounter certain gracious turns of phrase that current writers — Filipino and foreign — can only envy.
These phrases include “a carpet of dead leaves,” which she encountered after the vehicle she was on had a flat tire while en route to General Santos City from Davao.
She also writes about “the airy language of fashion [crowding] out the spare idiom of human tragedy,” referring to how the New York Times juxtaposed a story about a fashion show and a rape inside a subway car.
Polotan also mentions “the courage and the strength that can love the imperfect and the maimed,” recounting a visit to the doctor.
And, last but not least, talking about her son’s circumcision, she writes:

“[H]e would be in an elder sister’s skirt, lifting his dark and laughing eyes to me, torn between chagrin and pride, hesitating ever so briefly when I asked to look at the object of his ordeal. He would pull that…skirt open and I would see his possession cradled tenderly in a sling.”

3) Polotan is anachronistic but nice.

The phrase is from the Steely Dan song, Green Book, which is from the group’s Everything Must Go album. [See: Everything Must Go]
It describes her perfectly because her prose is way ahead of her time.
She may have used epithets — Mongoloid, Negro — which were deemed acceptable during her time.
However, her ideas and observations and the way she expresses them are just about the very best examples of modern Philippine writing in English.

From Apartment:

“Apartments invariably mold a kind of person quite hard of hearing and more than a trifle uncaring of the rights of others. His dwelling forces him to be that way. Stifling, airless, shockingly public, the architecture of the pupular three-by-six apartment, though stylized with the latest in doorknobs and light switches…is still oppressive to all that is human in one. The soul must have room to move in, where it is quiet and dark and private, where neighbors don’t intrude with their sneezes and their grunts, where walls protect and not reveal. It isn’t a stray theory that  children who grow up in apartments must suffer some twisting, eventually acquiring much of their elders’ malicious curiosity. Thrown too closely together, separated only by a thin plaster of cement, apartment dwellers pry, listen, peep, keep track of, speculate with more than subliminal interest.”

From Facebook to a real book

It wasn’t exactly the best time to discuss Facebook.
After all, it was the launch of a book about how Philippine institutions, harnessed properly, could effect meaningful change in a country famously desperate for reform.
But on August 4, the date of the book launch, Berthold Leimbach, the Philippine resident representative of the German foundation Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES), brought the matter up in any case.
“We only have a limited time on earth,” he said at the Sining Kamalig art gallery in Gateway Mall in Quezon City, surrounded by a few reporters. “Why waste all that time on Facebook?”

Three reasons why Mark Frauenfelder’s Rule The Web rules (or at least for me)

Do yourself a favor — quit updating your Facebook status, stop posting vague and indulgent messages on Twitter, and lay off surfing for the latest celebrity nip slip pics or similar adult-oriented material.
(And no, I’m not talking about myself here.)
Go offline for a few hours and read Mark Frauenfelder’s Rule The Web.
If the book was able to help me — a technically-challenged pseudo-geek — undertake net-related stuff “better, easier, faster,” as it claimed on its cover, then it will definitely help you, a supposedly intelligent and sophisticated person with refined tastes in reading.
So get yourself a copy if you haven’t yet.
After all…
First, it’s cheap.
Or at least now it is.
Got my copy for P146.00 (roughly three US dollars) at an undisclosed branch of National Bookstore, which as we all know, is having its yearly cut price book sale, offering discounts of up to 75 percent.
The copy that I got was originally priced P600++ and was later marked down to P182.00. But when the cashier zapped the book with her bar code scanner, I got charged P146.00. Who am I to argue with that?
Second, despite being three years old, it remains relevant.
Since it was published in 2007, Rule The Web contains and refers to material that has evolved.
Take, a free Wiki website, which is now a
But who’s complaining?
Not me.
After all, if you’re done reading the print version, you can always visit the book’s updated website.
You can even sell the book at Bookay-Ukay Pilipinas, my favorite used bookstore.
And that’s something I just might do, all for a discounted price of P200.
(Hey, someone’s got to pay for the book’s clear protective plastic cover.)
And, last but not the least, the book is very useful.
Frauenfelder, editor in chief of Make Magazine, may not be witty and funny as David Pogue or Dave Barry but his tips — pardon the use of the word, kids — rock.
After a few minutes of skimming through, I was able to create a smart playlist on iTunes (which I never had the patience to try because I thought it was too complicated), learned that I could control iTunes through FoxyTunes, a Firefox extension, without switching applications, and got a wealth of suggestions from the author’s favorite bloggers.
Best tip for me came from Gareth Branwyn, a writer, editor, and media critic for Wired, Make, Esquire, and the Baltimore Sun. He recommends using GTDTiddlyWiki to help everyone get things done.
But seriously, this indulgent blog entry does little justice to the variety of tips available in Rule The Web, which includes measures against phishing and pharming, instructions for setting up a wireless network, and a basic guide for submitting your domain to major search engines.
These tasks are still beyond my core competence, which primarily involves consumption of cold beverages, eating free lunches, and staring at the ceiling for long periods.
Clearly, the book is worth more than P200, if you ask me. So, do I hear any offers? P250? Anyone?

Also known as Wolfensohn’s Bank

Throwing money at a problem to solve it is pretty much like giving alms to beggars to lift them out of poverty: the effort does little to produce intended results, except to create publicity stunts and assuage guilty consciences.

Without addressing the root causes of global and local economic crises and poverty, any entity, however wealthy, well-connected, or well-intentioned, will be rendered ineffective.

While this may sound trite, obvious, and old-hat, it bears repetition, especially in Asia.

Fortunately, Sebastian Mallaby, Washington Post columnist, has taken it upon himself to emphasize this point more than once while writing about the triumphs and tribulations of Australian-born James Wolfensohn, the first non-American to become president of the World Bank.

In The World’s Banker, Mallaby has dished out a dramatic narrative combined with substantial research to illustrate what even non-economists presumably know all along: that good politics is inextricably linked with economic development and that poor governance can introduce or exacerbate a crisis.

In 1996, just a year before the Asian crisis struck, the World Bank and its Bretton Woods sister, the International Monetary Fund, pumped in billions of dollars to strengthen the balance sheets of Indonesia’s state-owned banks.

Unfortunately, most of these funds went to undeserving borrowers, including those close to the Suharto regime.

As a result, when the contagion hit, the banks remained on the verge of collapse, the very situation that the Bank and the IMF wanted to avoid when they released the funds in the first place.

The banks, in the end, barely had anything to show for except bad assets, soured loans, and poor corporate governance.

In turn, the volatile mix of financial instability and the effects of a regional crisis culminated in the resignation of president Mohamed Suharto in May 1998.

“The [World] Bank has been engaged for years in Indonesia but its economists’ worldview had left no room for the idea that if you don’t get the politics roughly right a lot of development progress may be wiped out in a few weeks,” Mallaby says in a chapter about Indonesia, the Bank’s poster country for its poverty reduction strategies (or at least before 1997).

Mallaby’s assertion could very well apply to the Philippines, a heretofore willing subject of IMF-inflicted structural adjustment programs.

With a yawning fiscal deficit, the current [Arroyo] administration has ignored calls for an independent, no-nonsense audit of the power purchase agreements* made between the government-owned National Power Corporation (Napocor) and independent power plants (IPPs).

While the justice, finance, and energy departments have said that most of the contracts are on the level, various independent studies indicate exactly the opposite.

Like the huge, fraudulent debt incurred from the construction of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, the government continues to honor these deals, which binds Napocor and consumers to pay the IPPs for unused and even ungenerated power, which, incidentally, is one of the reasons for the country’s current fiscal mess.

Although the administration remains optimistic that the new value added tax as well as a slew of other measures will address the fiscal deficit, it nevertheless remains politically fragile, especially with unresolved allegations of election fraud.

How then is development ever going to proceed when it appears that the country can’t even get its politics right?

Despite its reputation for swallowing every bitter economic pill that both the IMF and the Bank have prescribed, the Philippines in the 21st century is a stark contrast to Uganda five years before the millennium.

Burdened by a series of dictatorships and erstwhile anti-free-market policies, Uganda significantly reduced poverty incidence with the help of the hard-hitting yet sensible Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile, a technocrat whom Mallaby refers to as a “hammer.”

As overall financial adviser to President Yoweri Musuveni, Tumusiime made it possible for the former British protectorate to hold its poverty conference in its very own territory, perhaps the very first country in Africa to do so.

Combined with the efforts of Wolfensohn and Jim Adams, then the Bank’s director for East Africa, Uganda’s poverty reduction initiatives — previously held in Paris — were discussed by donor country representatives, nongovernment organizations, and Bank officials right at the heart of Kampala, the country’s capital.

But it was more than a change of venue.

It was also a paradigm shift, the very instance when the World Bank — or at least under Wolfenson’s term — began to re-examine its ideas about development.

Nowhere was this transformation more dramatic than in the Bank’s engagement with Uganda.

The Bank, for instance, gave Musuveni money to build more roads even though it believed that these funds could be best used for education.

But then again, Wolfensohn’s Bank — as Mallaby sometimes called it — was now more open to other ideas.

“There was a good case to be made for rural road building, which would link poor farmers to markets, boosting their incomes and therefore their ability to pay for school fees,” Mallaby writes. “If the Ugandans did not want money for education, was it wise to jam it down their throats?”

As Mallaby shows, this kind of pragmatism could only have happened under Wolfenson’s term, whose early years were marked by swift, decisive, and positive action, especially when its dedicated executives intervened in Bosnia.

Although brash and impulsive, Wolfensohn — reportedly an Olympic swimmer — was able to transform the World Bank from a centralized and stodgy institution into a flexible agency which, more or less, willingly worked with nongovernment organizations to help lift millions out of poverty.

However, Wolfensohn was not always on target, a fact well-documented by Mallaby who took the extra effort to ensure that the portrait he has painted is accurate and balanced.

Aside from firing old hands or forcing their resignations, Wolfensohn, for better or for worse, created unnecessary tension in the Bank’s board by deliberately withholding discussions about policy shifts.

Due to Wolfensohn’s single-mindedness and a mania for doing things his way, one G7 country representative recited a poem during a meeting, comparing him to Narcissus.

These anecdotes, peppered with policy framework documents and strategy papers, only underscores that The World’s Banker remains a compelling read.

Its quick narrative pace, together with its intention to avoid development jargon, has made the book accessible, especially to regular readers, giving them an inside look at the workings of what may well be the only bank in history directly participating in programs which help the world’s poor.
*Power purchase agreements include foreign exchange and fuel price covers.
Besides being required to buy electricity from power plants, Napocor, the Philippines’ largest power producer, is also required to protect these same power plants from volatility of fuel prices and foreign exchange.
Some power plants use either diesel or bunker fuel to produce electricity.
This means every time oil prices (including prices of bunker fuel and diesel) go up, Napocor is required to fill in the difference in the price gap.
With every increase in global oil prices, the Philippines also pays more pesos for the same amount of fuel imports. Napocor is also expected to cover the difference in foreign exchange costs for independent power producers.

From the Fine Print Dept. This piece is an edited version of a previously published book review in the Manila Times in September 2005. World Bank icon is from

Book Review: The global Filipino and the goat

When Jose de Venecia Jr. was a boy, he was almost killed by a goat.
The enraged beast — the head of the herd that he was leading out to pasture — charged at him without any provocation, flinging his body into the air.
De Venecia avoided serious injury — and perhaps even an early death — after being saved by his belt. The billy goat’s horn snagged the leather strip fastened onto his waist, missing the target by just a few inches.
Whatever epiphanies de Venecia derived from this incident are not indicated in Global Filipino, his authorized biography, written by Brett Decker, a speechwriter and a newspaper editor.
But the anecdote — however incredible it may sound to friends, foes, and frenemies — serves the books purpose.
The goat attack and many other stories help drive narrative action, encouraging readers to actually go through the whole volume, a 400-page work that includes a 15-page Philippine history chronology, praises from presidents Aquino, Ramos, and Estrada.
No such remarks came from President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for obvious reasons.
In early 2008 — the same year the book was published — her allies unseated de Venecia as House Speaker despite years of unwavering and critical support.
But that’s how the game is played and no one knows this better than de Venecia, who was able to unite all political parties in the late 1990s in what was then known as the Rainbow Coalition.
But in 2008 — when Arroyo deemed him useless — he may have recognized that the jig was up and that he was old and rich enough to publish his biography.
Unknown to many, de Venecia’s biggest contribution to the country may very well be his move that asked allow local lenders to accept US dollars.
Proposed in the mid-1960s and later approved by both the US and the Philippines central bank, the move continues to benefit the country by making it easier for overseas Filipino workers to send money home.
De Venecia’s dollar remittance proposal earned him a belated recognition from the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas in 2005, the book says.
Besides commendations — presidential or otherwise — the book also carried blurbs from 20 other heads of state including South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and the United Nations’ Kofi Annan.
What purposes do these blurbs and written testimonies serve?
That our man from Pangasinan are in the good graces of leaders, both global and local, including the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos who may have considered him close enough to be a crony.
To this day, de Venecia denies the appellation.
Never mind that a company he once controlled — Landoil, which, among others, built ports and drilled for oil in the Middle East — was able to borrow a $120-million loan that was guaranteed by the Marcos government.*
After failing to collect from projects that were derailed when the Iran-Iraq war erupted in 1981, Landoil was eventually unable to pay its debts.
And just like any lucky guy, de Venecia got another break.
Landoil’s unpaid debt was covered by the Filipino taxpayer through Philguarantee, another government entity.
Decades after the goat attack, it seemed that de Venecia’s good luck remain in ample supply.
The Philippine Supreme Court later sustained a decision — rendered earlier by an anti-graft court — that cleared Landoil and de Venecia of any wrongdoing regarding its loan from the Marcos government, the book says.
His good fortune doesn’t stop there — it apparently extends to the spiritual realm.
Divine Providence has deigned to favor de Venecia and his family by allowing them to witness a few miracles, the biography says.
In December 2004, after his daughter Kristina Casimira, or KC, died in a fire at their home, de Venecia and wife Gina sought spiritual refuge at the convent of the Pink Sisters in Quezon City.
Unknown to both grieving parents, the prioress, Sister Hermenegildes, already instructed a younger sister, Incarnita, to offer prayers for KCs soul.
Except that she didnt tell anyone that her prayers for KC accompanied a personal petition. “[S]he had asked for a sign that KC was already in God’s bosom. In her prayer the young nun asked for a new pair of shoes. Her only pair was tattered and needed to be replaced,” the book said.
On January 25, 2005, the fortieth day of KCs death, the devout sisters prayers were answered. She received a pair of shoes, an indication that KC de Venecia was already in heaven. “In the pale glow of the convent light, Sister Incarnita’s eyes caught sight of a brand-new pair of shoes. They were Manay Gina’s birthday gift for Sister Hermenegildes, but they were a bit too big for her. She decided to give them to Sister Incarnita. They fit her perfectly,” the book says. “Mother, Mother Prioress, cried Sister Incarnita. You don’t know it, but this is the sign I have asked from the Lord to indicate that KS is in good hands! The shoes were delivered to the convent on January 24, the eve of KCs fortieth day of death, the day which, for the faithful, marks the ascension of the soul to heaven.”
None of these supernatural events reflect badly on de Venecia.
After all, these help embellish the latter half of the book, which resemble fairly well-written brochures filled with platitudes.
Take de Venecia’s speech during the Global Interfaith Dialogue in the United Nations in 2005. “There can be no peace between the great powers without peace between the major religions. And there can be no peace among the religions unless there is a dialogue among the religions,” the book says, quoting its subject, who, from all appearances, feel mighty important to emphasize the obvious.
It may be argued that the lackluster text may only be the result of de Venecia’s kind of politics — safe, centrist, and therefore traditional.
But one thing’s for sure, no one knows what would have happened to Philippine politics if the goat had a better aim.

*In 1987, a year after the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, family members, and cronies left for Hawaii, the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) filed Civil Case No. 20 against de Venecia.
The case alleged that he took undue advantage of his links with Marcos to secure Landoil loans, a transaction considered behest.
The $120 million-borrowing reportedly satisfied any two or more of the following conditions: that it was either given under duress, undercollateralized, spent for other purposes, endorsed by senior government officials, used by persons associated with Marcos, and/or bankrolled programs or projects that were not deemed feasible.
To settle the case, Landoil entered into a compromise agreement with the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) in 1988.
Under the compromise, de Venecia agreed to transfer 45 percent of Landoil shares to the PCGG and the company’s claim against a foreign insurance company that agreed to cover its losses arising from non-payment for its Middle East projects.
As of late 2007, a blogger familiar with the matter said that only P13 million has been reportedly received by the PCGG even as Landoil has allegedly received payments from its insurer. (Landoil reportedly demanded $700 million in compensation but it supposedly reached a settlement with its insurer.)

From the Erratum Dept.
On page 138, it says that To control inflation, de Venecia proposed a solution: reduce the reserve requirements for banks.
A professor at the Asian Institute of Management and an expert at the Asian Development Bank have been consulted about this point and they both agree: the proposal is wrong.
It either should have been corrected and/or edited.
Cutting bank’s reserve requirements — the amount of cash it stores in the vaults of the BSP — will increase the money supply in the financial system. A higher money supply in the system leads to increased inflation, the very thing that de Venecia’s proposal intended to reduce.

Life after death: A book review of The Dead Beat by Marilyn Johnson

Yes, there is life after death.
But it doesn’t involve cryogenics or Christianity.
It’s the obituary: The written tribute that is born immediately after someone — usually famous and otherwise — departs for parts unknown.
Putting it together is not easy.
Besides requiring meticulous research, it also involves managing morbid expectations especially since those considered terminal cases have a bad habit of bouncing back to the pink of health.
That’s not all.
Preparing an obituary more often than not involves disturbing the bereaved, who may find it unpleasant to discover that the deceased left the maid pregnant.
But then again, these complications have failed to prevent Marilyn Johnson — who has written tributes for Princess Diana, Jacqueline Onassis, and others — from writing a book about the whole subject.
“Obituaries have a pull, a natural gravity, for those of us who’ve observed that life has a way of ending,” she says in the book’s introduction. “But however morbidly we arrived at this page, we’ve ended up sticking around, hanging out, admiring the writing, getting hooked on the daily rush.”
Published in 2006, The Dead Beat just about covers the length and breadth of obituary writing in newspapers in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Although newspapers in both countries generally employ an obituary writer and an editor, the similarities end there.
Americans are more inclined towards solemnity, preferring to treasure “folksy,” romanticized impressions, even though the deceased while alive was a notorious neighborhood drunkard who asked everyone for some change.
The British, to their credit, are less forgiving, employing euphemisms — if at all — to “aim for some higher truth,” Johnson quotes an editor as saying.
As a result, the book cites an obituary for outrageous British comedian Malcolm Hardee, which was published in the Telegraph.

“He did an impression of Charles de Gaulle, his penis playing the part of the General’s nose. He was also celebrated for a bizarre juggling act performed in the dark and with nothing visible apart from his genitals, daubed with flourescent paint. Fans would greet his arrival on stage with cries of “Get yer knob out.” He was said to be huge in Germany and Sweden.”

But whether British or American, risque or respectful, obituarists, just like anyone else, are prone to quick judgment.
Which explains why Andrew McKie of the Daily Telegraph ran an essay-length correction entitled “The Day I Managed to Kill Off Tex Ritter’s Wife.”

“I apologise unreservedly to our readers for having misled them. More importantly, I apologise to Mrs. Ritter. I am genuinely delighted she is still with us — I came to like her a lot while preparing her obituary for the page.”

Despite these oversights and various other complications surrounding the composition of an obituary, scores of people remain obsessed with them as indicated by frenetic online activity in various usenet groups that Johnson cites in the book.
This prompts her to say that “[i]t’s the best time ever to read obituaries, and I’m here to tell you, it’s a great time to die,” she says.
Amen to that.

Making the grade: A book review of the Graywolf Annual: Short stories

The Graywolf Annual: Short stories
Edited by Scott Walker
A Book Review

Of the twelve short stories in this collection — the very first in the Graywolf Annual series, published in 1985 — only five make the cut; that is, less than half of the collected pieces provide a clear, moving epiphany that generally characterize good fiction.
Yes, the anthology barely makes the grade.
But that’s if you’re looking at it from the bean counter’s perspective.
Overall, the anthology’s not too bad.
In an age of memes, tweets, and status updates, five pieces in this volume provide examples of fiction’s raw, unmediated power, compensating for the shortcomings of the other seven (two of which, by the way, have been previously unpublished).
In no order of importance, these five works are Andre Dubus’ After the Game, Richard Ford’s Winterkill, Elizabeth Cox’s A Sounding Brass, Tobias Wolff’s Our Story Begins, and Bobbie Ann Mason’s Hunktown.
Those familiar with Dubus will find After the Game hardly a departure from his easy, conversational approach to storytelling.
Which is not necessarily a bad thing.
“I wasn’t in the clubhouse when Joaquin Quintana went crazy,” so goes Dubus’ first line.
Direct and honest, the story provides a warm familiarity similar to slipping into an old shirt or an old shoe.
Ford’s Winterkill, Cox’s A Sounding Brass, and Mason’s Hunktown all feature haunting endings, their protagonists lying in wait for tectonic shifts in their damaged, incomplete lives.
Winterkill’s Les Snow preserves what remains of his personal space by slipping outside unobstrusively to get some time to fish by himself to avoid being noticed by his friends.
A Sounding Brass’s Ginny embraces the challenge of raising her two kids immediately after her husband is killed in a freak hunting accident.
Hunktown’s Joann takes it all in stride, despite what appears to be her second husband’s attempt to move to the city and form his own band and her divorced daughter’s carelessness in managing her own life.
Wolff’s Our Story Begins is no less impressive although factual errors slightly disrupt the narrative action.
Charlie, the main character, eavesdrops on three coffehouse patrons who talk about a priest who brings Miguel Lopez de Constanza, a Filipino, into San Francisco.
The whole story is implicitly premised on the fact that Filipinos living in 1980s Philippines speak Spanish.
“Let’s say that for some reason, you, Truman, find yourself in Manila dead broke. You don’t know anybody, you don’t understand anything anyone says, and you wind up in a hotel where people are sticking needles into themselves and nodding out on the stairs and setting their rooms on fire all the time. How much Spanish are you going to learn living like that?”
Too bad — cursory research could have easily corrected this wrong impression, even during that time when the internet was a pipe dream.
Fortunately, the oversight doesn’t prove to be too distracting. Wolff’s piece is still one of the best in the collection.