Some of you guys may not know it, but there’s actually been a handful of novels written by foreign authors that are set here in the good old Philippine Islands, specifically here in the slightly dusty Pearl of the Orient, Manila.
Obviously, as someone who’s spent all his life here, these books always fascinate me. How do these foreigners see my city? Do they see it the same way as I do, or are their impressions of the city so wildly different from my own? Can they help me see an aspect of the city I was never aware of before?
For instance, Alex Garland’s “The Tesseract” was such a curious thing to read because while there were snatches of the Manila I know, for the most part it read like an old “edition” of Manila gleamed mostly from pop culture representations. I didn’t hate the book, but I felt like I would have enjoyed it more if the setting felt a little more genuine.
Now along comes Alexander Yates’ “Moondogs”, another “Manila” novel written by a foreigner. Of course I started reading it with a little trepidation. Was this going to be as frustrating a read as “The Tesseract” was?
“Moondogs” tells the story of Benicio, a young man who finds himself on a trip to the Philippines as he attempts to rebuild a relationship with his father Harold, whom he hasn’t spoken to in years. When his father is a no-show on his arrival here in the country, Benicio chalks it up to the list of offenses his father has done against him.
What he doesn’t know, however, is that his father has been kidnapped by a shabu-addled cab driver and his rooster sidekick (yes). From there, we get introduced to a myriad cast of characters: a team of super-powered policemen charged with recovering Benicio’s kidnapped father; Filipino politicians (who are a crazy breed all on their own); and American embassy officials trying their best to ensure the rescue of Benicio’s father.
As these characters barrel towards a dramatic confrontation at Corregidor, they also come to terms with several truths about their own selves. It may turn out that it’s not just Harold who needs saving, but everyone else as well.
I am going to go right out and say it: If it weren’t for the biographical information I knew about Alexander Yates beforehand, I would swear that this book was actually written by a Filipino. And I mean that as a huge compliment — his descriptions of the city and its people all rang true for me, whether they were made in a positive or negative light.
It was Yates’ pitch perfect description of Manila’s picky cab drivers that convinced me that I was in good hands. That simple scene just resonated so much with my own experience — and I suspect with a lot of Manilenos experiences as well — that it was no longer difficult for me to just trust in the direction Yates wanted to take me.
And for the most part, Yates definitely kept up his part of the bargain. There is very little in the Manila in “Moondogs” that Filipinos will not recognize. Everyone here knows about actors turned politicians, about the circus that is our election season, and the enduring hold that some of our action stars have over their audiences. His descriptions of the various parts of the metropolis — from Greenbelt to Roxas Boulevard — are spot-on and reveals someone who’s really had a life here, if that makes any sense.
It’s not just the verisimilitude of the Manila experience that I loved about “Moondogs”. While all of his characters end up doing something despicable at one point or another in the novel, it’s hard to fully revile them because Yates has done a great job with their back stories and motivations. Just like Manila, all of them are more than what they seem, possessed of some depth that is often obscured by the grime.
What’s so special to me about Yates’ characters is the fact that they’re all outcasts in one way or another, unmoored and uncomfortable, with their identities constantly assailed by the environment they’re in. I think it’s something that OFWs, expats, and gay men growing up in machismo-drenched Catholic countries can really relate to.
Some parts didn’t work for me — I just couldn’t get into the Solita subplot as much as I wanted to — but that overriding theme of being unmoored just had me hooked and never let me go. I enjoyed it way, way more than I thought would, especially since I thought it would be another “The Tesseract”.
Also, the Bulletin got more mentions than the Philippine Daily Inquirer and the Philippine Star, so there.
There’s so many more things to love about “Moondogs” — the utter entertainment that is the super-powered “Ka-Pow” squad, for one — but if I go on for any longer this will take forever. Just go out there and get yourself a copy of this book.
(Header image from dubovsky.com.)