‘Monstress’ by Lysley Tenorio
She’s not a monstress, but she plays one on the big screen: Reva Gogo, star of Filipino B-movies like “The Squid Children of Cebu’’ and “The Creature in the Cane.’’ The year is 1970 as Reva and her director boyfriend, Checkers, travel from Manila to Los Angeles, hoping a Hollywood filmmaker will revive their stalled careers.
That the filmmaker turns out to be less Hollywood than low-rent Los Feliz, his set not on a studio soundstage but in his mother’s Pasadena basement, is a disappointment but not a deal-breaker in “Monstress,’’ the title story of Lysley Tenorio’s compassionate and entertaining new collection. In these tales, illusions are ubiquitous, and they will be shattered - whether instantly or by degrees.
In the Philippines, a former US colony, people are steeped in American culture, and America is, or once was, the beckoning dream for nearly all of the characters in Tenorio’s universe. “Growing up, I watched branches of my family break off as they headed to the States,’’ says the teenage narrator of “Help,’’ one of only two stories in the book set entirely in the Philippines, where Tenorio was born. The author now lives in San Francisco, and his stories navigate both worlds, inhabited by people who cannot shake the feeling of being somehow other.
For the 19-year-old grandson in “Felix Starro,’’ staying in the United States seems the only way to escape the family business, a con begun years before by his grandfather. A bogus healer, Papa Felix has brought him from Manila to San Francisco so they can spend a few weeks preying on ailing Filipinos, but the grandson is choked by guilt over the harm they are doing to strangers, and by the prospect of hurting his grandfather by abandoning him.
The book’s most poignant tale is “Save the I-Hotel,’’ a chiaroscuro of loneliness that’s also a quiet portrait of abiding friendship and life-changing betrayal. Inspired by an actual event and set in the original Manilatown section of San Francisco, it toggles between the 1930s, when Fortunado and Vicente meet as young men, recently arrived from the Philippines, and the 1970s, when they’re about to lose their home in a resident hotel. That both are single, still, in their 60s, is a disquieting reminder that laws - against interracial unions, against same-sex unions - have often stood in the way of love.
The sole weak link in the collection is “The View From Culion,’’ about a young Filipina who in 1964 befriends a US Navy deserter in a leper colony on a Philippine island. Better are “L’amour, CA,’’ in which an 8-year-old boy and his adored teenage sister move with their family from the Philippines to a naval base in central California, and “The Brothers,’’ about a Bay Area family years deeper into their American life, mourning a son who died while in the process of becoming a woman.
“Help,’’ set in 1966 Manila, is equally concerned with ties to family, but it’s more of a lark, in which an uncle enlists his rock-fan nephews to wreak revenge on the Beatles for insulting the woman he loves, Imelda Marcos. In “Superassassin,’’ about a high school nerd who sees himself as the blustering hero of a comic-book adventure, the narrator’s deadpan voice (“I am shushed by the librarian, who frowns at me like an archenemy’’) grows less funny as we realize that a boy this alienated and bent on cartoon-style vengeance is dangerous.
Even so, the kid makes some good points. “Fifteen years ago, at the moment of my spawning,’’ he intones, “no one could have guessed the potency of my hybridity.’’ Tenorio, of course, is a hybrid, too, and from that dual nature comes the strength of the stories he tells.