The Son of Good Fortune by Lysley Tenorio

“One of the perks of being born neither in America or the Philippines. The only history he needed to know was his own.”

A few weeks ago I read Lysley Tenorio’s collection of short stories, which had some real gems such as ‘Monstress’, and I was looking forward to reading his first novel. The Son of Good Fortune follows nineteen-year old Excel who is forced to move back in his mother’s apartment after his girlfriend tells him that she needs a break. Excel finds himself falling into the same life he’d left behind, working at The Pie Who Loved Me, and trying to save money. His relationship with his mother, Maxima, is tense. He lied about his motives for moving out and avoided contacting her while he was with Sab in Hello City (a community of artists and hippies).

On Excel’s tenth birthday Maxima told him that they were ‘tago ng tago’ (TNT) a Tagalog phrase meaning ‘hiding and hiding’ that is used for undocumented Filipinos. Since then Excel has tried to keep his head down. Being undocumented means that he has very few job prospects and his forced to work at a dodgy pizzeria for a bullying and tyrannical boss who frequently threatens his staff with deportation. Maxima instead makes money online, manipulating gullible men who are seeking Filipino women (who of course have to be beautiful, Christian, and simultaneously pious and sexy).

Tenorio renders the anxiety of being TNT (not being able to go to the hospital, worrying that at any moment you might be found out). While Maxima grew up in the Philippines, and still has strong ties to it, its culture, and its language, Excel’s unusual birth place lands him in a limbo of sorts, not ‘quite’ American or Filipino, a citizen of nowhere.

I liked Tenorio’s compassionate yet humorous account of Excel and Maxima’s lives. He depicts the everyday reality of being undocumented in America, of having to constantly ‘hide’, of being unable to define your identity, of not feeling safe and of feeling like you don’t belong.
Maxima easily stole the show. She was an explosive character. She’s acted in some somewhat dated Filipino action films, she’s a pro at martial arts (she even has a signature move called the ‘Maximattack’), and she clearly loves and wants to protect Excel. She’s not be perfect, and Tenorio isn’t afraid to question her actions, especially the way she exploits men online. And yet, I was rooting for the succeed since Maxima is just trying to survive. We get to know her mentor, Joker, only through flashbacks, which is a pity since he seemed like a really interesting—if eccentric—character.
Excel was far less compelling that his mother. While we are shown that he’s unsure of who he is or where he belongs, I never really had a grasp of his character. While I could understand his passivity in certain situations, I found myself wishing he had more of a personality.
Sab, his girlfriend, appears in very few scenes. After their one meeting they seem to be an item, but their relationship seemed closer to that between a brother and sister than boyfriend and girlfriend. In the chapters set in Hello City she seems to play a minor role, as most scenes focus on the Excel’s odd-jobs with an artist called Red. She’s little other than a ‘I’m not like other girls’ girl (she wears DocMartens and has blue stripes in her hair).
While I did appreciate the empathy Tenorio demonstrated in exploring themes of identity, displacement, immigration, family history, and human connection, I was left wanting more out of his main character. If this had been Maxima’s story, I would have undoubtedly loved it.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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