by Laurel Flores Fantauzzo
The disappearance of someone beloved and familiar can make desperate sleuths of everyday citizens, plunging us into unexpected journeys and discoveries. This month, Booked and Printed examines two books with disappearances at their centers. Both narratives send their protagonists on investigations close to home, and close to the bone.
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Patron Saints of Nothing, the third novel by Randy Ribay, opens with Jay Reguero as a young child, weeping over a dying puppy in his father’s home country, the Philippines. It’s Jay’s first encounter with death, and with adults’ relationships to it. His Filipino uncle mocks his sorrow, his father stays quiet, and his white American mother reminds him death is a part of life. Only his gentle cousin, Jun, assures him his sadness is natural, and that he shares it. When Jay returns home to America, the cousins share letters over the years, until Jay stops responding, drawn back into the rhythms of his life in the Midwest.
In 2017, Jay is an indifferent student finishing high school, with his admission secured at university. His time in the Philippines, and his friendship with his cousin Jun, are distant memories; Jay’s consciousness is mostly taken up by gaming and by his weed-smoking friends. It’s only his father’s mention of Jun’s death that forces Jay’s hand to put down the controller. His shock deepens when his father won’t mention the cause of death—only that his cousin’s family refuses to hold a funeral for Jun. Jay’s sense of guilt and his need to break his family’s silence lead him to spend his spring break in the Philippines, seeking out the circumstances of Jun’s life that led to his death. Jay’s urge to redeem his gentle cousin—and himself—drive the emotional stakes of his investigation.
It can be risky for an author to rush into a ripped-from-the-headlines narrative. Ribay’s young adult novel is a fictitious intervention into the so-called drug war of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, a government policy that has left thousands of mostly low-income citizens dead by gun violence. Some scholars have called the campaign genocidal; the United Nations has expressed concern. But the brutality’s continued, domestic popularity has roiled families both within the country and across the international Philippine diaspora. Some summaries of the campaign in Patron Saints of Nothing read more like exposition for an American audience and less like the reflections of a teenage first-person narrator.
But Jay Reguero’s search for his cousin’s legacy and his need to confront his own family are heart-rending and compelling, making the book a page-turner. Jun’s father—like a majority of Philippine citizens and overseas Philippine voters—is a staunch supporter of President Duterte as a higher-up in the Philippine National Police, a force stained for years by evidence of human rights violations. Even alongside the brutal death of his own son, Jay’s uncle, Tito Maning, praises the future he says a strong-willed Duterte is ushering in. Jay’s aunts, while skeptical of the president’s policies, are wistful and resigned to the suffering of the Philippines and the evils of its leaders. The dynamics of this horrifying time in contemporary Philippine society play out in heartrendingly realistic ways, with Jay finding varying degrees of complicity and coping. Jay struggles to grasp his own right to speak and act, as a mixed-race, mixed-national, insider-
outsider to the Philippines.
The evasive heart of the story is the lost cousin, Jun, a thoughtful young man who appears mostly in the epistolary. His letters to Jay throughout the book reveal him to be a poetry lover, a would-be vegetarian, a musician; a compassionate teenager who cannot resign himself to his own country’s violence and inequality. Witnessing Jun’s humanity, readers will wonder about the enormous loss behind the unimaginable numbers of bodies today; most of the victims of homicide in the Philippines have been young men.
Jay reaches into the truth of Jun’s life and death, traversing upper-class malls, forbidding family compounds, and makeshift homes of low-income communities. Through Jay’s investigation, Ribay offers an unforgettable look at deep themes of country and family. Readers won’t soon forget the developing interior life of Jay, a young man in search of answers to the questions of his own grief, and his own search for connection and belonging.
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The disappearance in Sarah Jane is ostensibly that of Cal, the eponymous narrator’s mentor in the police department. But the decorated mystery writer James Sallis offers no easy narrative quest here. The book immerses us in the oblique consciousness of a young woman who’s lived several lives by the time she arrives, seemingly by accident and coincidence, in the small American town of Farr. We see glimpses of her doomed marriage to a mentally ill man, the horrific scenes she witnessed at war in Iraq, her hardscrabble job as a resort cook, her memorable literary class at community college. We see her arrive for a job interview with Cal, a small-town sheriff who sizes her up and offers her a role without bothering to finish the interview. And we see her begin to investigate Cal’s own disappearance.
All throughout her testimony, the narrator meditates on the unknowable nature of every human’s motivations, no matter how seemingly familiar. “All stories are ghost stories,” she opens one chapter, “about things lost, people, memories, home, passion, youth, about things struggling to be seen, to be accepted, by the living.” Sarah Jane is a slippery teller, confessional and withholding all at once. As she tells of her investigation into Cal’s disappearance, readers’ questions deepen. Is she a lonely woman in search of domestic peace? Or does she contain more danger than she suffers from? What kind of ghost story, exactly, is this narrator telling?
This is a noir of rich, skillfully disorienting ambiguity, moved by a masterful hand. The book offers as many discoveries upon rereading as it does upon the first reading, a sign of its ongoing endurance. Sarah Jane Pullman disappears and reappears multiple times on the page, leading readers through the ongoing mystery of one itinerant life.
all points bulletin: The first book in Shelley Costa’s new Tuscan Cooking School series, Al Dente’s Inferno (Berkley, February 2020), is available for preorder. • This Way to Departures, a short-story collection by Linda Mannheim, was published in October by Influx Press. • Tara Laskowski’s debut novel One Night Gone is now available from Graydon House Books. • Thistles and Thieves, the third book in Molly MacRae’s Highland Bookshop series, releases January 2020 (Pegasus). • The fourth Angela Richmond Death Investigator mystery from Elaine Viets is available for preorder (see A Star Is Dead, Severn House, April 2020). • Two Bites Too Many, a Sarah Blair mystery by Debra H. Goldstein, was released in fall 2019 from Kensington. •