- Baby Jesus Pawn Shop
- The Permanent Press, 288 pp.
East Meets West in Murky Waters
Critics are generally regarded as the leeches of the literary world. Parasitic little suckers, we gleefully extract the life blood from a book and regurgitate an interpretative mess on the innocent populous. We should be stomped on before we have a chance to open our mouths.
This thought occurred to me as I read Lucia Orth’s new novel Baby Jesus Pawn Shop. Perhaps my uneasiness at feeding off another’s toil arose from the fact that this is a book hard to condense into a pithy review. Or perhaps it was because I have only my gut instinct to tell me that it didn’t quite work. Or perhaps it was because I kept saying, “what if she had tried this,” when I know how hard it is for an author to try at all.
So let me begin by saying Orth is a very talented writer. She has an eye for detail and a knack for imagery. In her tale of a Filipino and a Westerner coming to grips with the dictatorial landscape of a Marcos-era Philippines, she saturates our minds with sights and senses:
Signs said FIREHOUSE, BLUE HAWAII, TOMATO CLUB, NEW BANGKOK, LIVE SEX!, MACHOS TOROS!!… Everything was glazed with wet color, the cracked neon green sidewalks, the red taillights, white headlights, the hot pinks and cool blues of flashing signs. Brown frothy sewerage spilled from a broken pipe.
Even her smallest observations can provoke unusual connections:
The voices of the few competing vendors rose up harshly…Flies struck down by the heat rested on the algae in the still canal, like thick brocade.
Into this surreal world enter a Filipino named Doming, a man on the run. Doming is an assumed name, a cover, and one of Orth’s many symbolic notes – Doming, closely allied to the Latin dominicus, “of the lord”. Caught up in the underground movement that seeks to bring down Marcos’s regime, this man of the Lord must decide if he is capable of terrorism against torturers.
Complicating his decision is the presence of Rue, the wife of an American diplomat who specializes in counter-insurgency. Doming is there to drive her husband Trace around the city, and Trace is there to show the cynical face of U.S. policy. Due to her husband’s hobnobbing with government cronies, Rue is at risk from Doming’s potential fire.
This is a thriller plotline, but Baby Jesus Pawn Shop is not really a thriller. Doming is Hamlet in disguise – he spends most of the book debating whether to act – while Rue takes on the role of Western outsider – both observer and culpable participant. And despite the inevitable love affair between the two, there remains a curious lack of tension. That’s probably due to the fact that this book’s front and back covers promise not only a thriller, but a travelogue and a moral polemic. Orth spent five years in Manila at a non-profit organization, and she spends a great deal of time leading us on a tour, from slum to mansion, from a faith healer’s house to a deserted island. It’s a veritable monsoon of impressions.
Though these explorations are vivid and fascinating, they often serve to postpone the conflict – and conflict, as Aristotle might say, makes for good drama.
What’s more, she has structured her novel around two fundamentally good characters. That’s not necessarily a problem – good can knock heads with good many times – but it does mean one has to be careful about how the characters express themselves. Rue I found convincing. Doming was a different story.
For instance, here he is lecturing Rue:
This story is repeated again and again here. Marcos knows we’ll forget. Some other horror occurs and attention turns away.
Here he is reflecting on his actions:
In life it is not the criminal that provokes the most hate, but the honest man who is not afraid to speak the truth. That is why the Spanish never wanted Filipinos educated, to keep them silent and ignorant, clan set against clan.
“You’re right, violence creates more of the very thing it seeks to destroy,” Doming finally said.
And here he is coming to his resolution:
So I must not keep silent against the dragon’s violence, no matter how bloodied I become. Call it by name in story and song, faith and imagination. And laughter. That, too, is a form of prayer. This is how God saves us…
These are very lofty sentiments, but are they really how people (Filipino or otherwise) think and express themselves? I kept hoping throughout that Orth would give us a more visceral connection to Doming’s life, a sense of being inside him looking out instead of directing him, God-like, from on high.
In addition, there were a few places where I found myself playing the reviewer’s famous “what if” game. What if, for example, Orth had delved into the mind of Raymonde, seen here as a thoroughly despicable man affiliated with the regime? We view the world from the eyes of Celia, the loyal cook; why not from a greedy torturer? What goes through the mind of such a person?
Or, what if discursive passages had been cut? When Doming agrees to plant bombs at deserted shops, what if Orth had left out the sentence, “it was a form of resistance that was disruptive but not aimed at killing” and allowed us to uncover his motives for ourselves?
Or what if Orth had written more about Rue’s childhood? In the depths of the monsoon, these simple descriptions stood out for me like a ray of sunshine:
One day the neighbor let her taste his Braille books with her lips like he did. He read every day, he said, it saved him, to join the world again on the page… She bent to the white book that was no more than an empty plate. She closed her eyes and felt the small seeds of letters with her lips, on the cool paper. But she couldn’t make any words grow from them.
No “likes”, no lengthy extended metaphors, restrained, simple and clean. These are the parts I greatly enjoyed in Baby Jesus Pawn Shop.
But then again, as I said at the beginning, we bloodsuckers do not always get it right. I may have arguments with the current literary trend to pack a narrative with imagery and analogies, to focus on immersion in a world (sometimes to the detriment of plot points), but I am also a leech of the finest order. Orth is a good writer, and she has a richly textured novel that many will enjoy. I look forward to her future efforts.