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Repeated delights, intrinsic joys

By ALFRED A. YUSON, The Philippine STAR Published Apr 11, 2022 5:00 am

Lucas Letrero ages from eight to his mid-40s in this novel that he narrates. This development isn’t sequential on the pages, nor are his memories presented chronologically.

Lucas recollects different stages of his life in hopscotch fashion, with subtle lateral shifts in time zones pulled off with authorial sleight-of-hand. Lucas often slides elliptically into another character’s, say, a tita’s (a friend of his mom’s), POV with regards to an experience and its inherent areas of privacy, before reverting to the initial narrative.

Large gaps in Lucas’s own timeline are skipped with dexterous structuring. We imagine that the other characters, major to minor, serve to support the pegs of his growth from a papa’s boy to early teenhood until he is left to his mother’s solicitude.

But there is one large leap in time that remains mostly sealed — how he daily fared with the pain of losing his dad for three decades before the old man reintroduces himself from across an ocean via email. It is a medium Ariston Letrero is yet unaccustomed to, unlike the son Lucas who’s trained himself as a digital whiz.

The ironies are not whacked onto the canvas as impasto. Engaging articulation makes sure of that. Structural styling augments this aw-shucks approach to apparent light fare that is nostalgic for the 1970s and 1980s. The titas serve juice in “glasses wrapped in white crochet jackets.”

Ariston prides himself in being “a Renaissance man,” since he’s a jack-of-all-trades, as a reliable session musician who can also fall back on his modest gift of ouido to compose advertising jingles, as well as reproduce Japanese super-robot TV cartoons for a Filipino audience.

He even dons a costume as a mascot for another imported product that Pinoy kids delight in. As Lucas’s mom says, he has “rackets” that keep him busy and productive, but not enough to keep the family comfortable.

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Lucas’s strongest memory of early bonding with his dad is riding his shoulders to join the crowd entertained by the annual Christmas show mounted on a department store’s facade in the heart of Cubao. The pageant utilizes a combination of mechanical, electronic, and musical features — still so ’70s.

Into adulthood, Lucas winds up training himself as a copywriter, thence a marketing specialist in the advertising industry. He doesn’t seem to inherit his dad’s passable musical artistry — albeit, in a rare moment of triumph, Ariston wins the First Musicpop contest with an inspired flurry of deadline-beating creativity helped along by his do-it-all secretary.

The author turns it up spellbindingly in crucial parts, then falls back on his easy fluency for others, where what is left unsaid emerges as most pronounced.

This section that details how Ariston composed and produced his winning song, Why Is It So?, serves up a master class for gripping writing. The reader becomes both Ariston and Odette as they take frenetic turns with all the musical and recording decisions in a small studio.

In another dash of irony, it is this singular triumph that allows them to elope to America. In turn, yet another ironic twist leads to Lucas’s fluke of a failure, 30 years later, to land an important international account — ironic since it involves a digital catastrophe related to antic sexual imagery.

Angelo R. Lacuesta 

Both episodes manifest Angelo R. Lacuesta’s mastery of fiction in his first novel Joy, published by Penguin Random House SEA. The author turns it up spellbindingly in crucial parts, then falls back on his easy fluency for others, where what is left unsaid emerges as most pronounced. This is particularly true of the sexually graphic episodes.

For these, he reserves memorable lines free of exertion. As when he writes, of an early interlude: “I had never felt so much power just by being with someone. Her breath smelled of menthol and smoke when we kissed…”

Or, when prepping for a Skype session, Manila-New York three decades later with the same girl: “I’ve just had an hour of sleep. I wash my face and comb my hair with my fingers. I feel as if I were putting myself together out of thin air for her.”

Memories of Martial Law years, the Manila sound and clubs bring up roman a clef mentions, including Ronnie Nathanielsz, Kit Tatad, Teddy Boy Locsin, BBM, PNoy, Pepper Teehankee, Albert Martinez, George Canseco, Ryan Cayabyab, “Jun Lopito on guitars,” and Nonong Buencamino, who plays more than a cameo role as Ariston’s former music mentor, who helped with the notation for his winning piece, as well as the escape to the USA.

Father and son are disparately talented but appear to have lacked the apparent drive and consistent luck to make them eminently successful in their professional fields.

Here the question recurs, for the persnickety reader, as to who’s unfolding the detailed narrative, when Lucas’s I-persona is not in the scene. This occurs earlier in the intriguing chapter titled “Niña,” after one of the titas, who has a secret dalliance with her driver. But it’s suggested that Niña eventually gets back together with Lucas’s mom in Davao: “Knowing her, I suppose she’ll tell you what happened.”

What happens to Moroy, the driver-lover, may be another matter, since the gory outcome would be something Niña would keep private. Or could that punchy stand-alone chapter have been an imaginative exercise on Lucas’s part, as copywriter honing himself for ad pitch delivery?

Maybe the writing is so good that a reader would gloss over such shifts in narrative voice. Or that the precedents established by that point, when other private details are shared by Lucas, allow for his hearsay ken. These would include his dad’s exploit of getting his mother pregnant at 16. And of how the relationship muddled along after she had given birth in Davao (for privacy) before agreeing to take up life in Cubao with the professional dabbler.

Lucas could then have learned of that history second-hand, from his mom and her relatives — certainly not from his dad who hardly ever told him anything beyond his own homespun shibboleths (“Why would God create hell?”) or the names of musicians he had worked with.

As for the furtively planned escape abroad, the details could only have been known to Ariston and Odette — just as what happened with them in California. Odette is mentioned as having deserted Ariston after a desultory Las Vegas gig, but she seems to reappear in a later chapter, although that remains vague. Progressing through the book, the hope stays that a reunion with his dad would eventually put Lucas up to speed.

It isn’t until 30 years later that Ariston suddenly reconnects with his son via email, and he remains truculent beyond the simple reach-out that’s rendered telegram-style in all-caps.

It’s a parallel leap in time with regards Lucas’s relationship with Dedes, three years his junior, with whom he shared blue seal smokes and that early kiss on her 13th birthday bash. She too has disappeared in the US. But after ditching a Pinoy husband and presumably going through several affairs, now in her late 30s she happily welcomes a reintroduction from Lucas — which leads to the erotic exercises via Skype.

This reader wonders if this debut novel intends to have a sequel (much as it deserves one). Lucas appears to be on the brink of something at book’s end, himself having taken the plunge to America to finally reunite with his dad in LA, and possibly Dedes in NY. But these eventualities of import are held up, and in their place is transitory joy with a Fil-Am stranger only met via the Internet —someone named exactly that: Joy — in a throwback to the favorite expensive fragrance by Jean Patou that distinguished the ’70s titas with class.

Father and son are disparately talented but appear to have lacked the apparent drive and consistent luck to make them eminently successful in their professional fields. Ariston’s contemporary who becomes a top gun is the Chinoy businessman Teddy Yap, while Lucas’s peer is former schoolmate Marvin, who exceeds himself as a marketing guru, in profitable service to Yap.

Would Ariston and Lucas find better fortune in the US? Seems doubtful, but we are left with gaping curiosity over how Lucas’s reconfigurations with a long-lost father and errant would-be lover would pan out. At the very least, they could backstop the full-fledged narrative voice with hearsay lore, for now and into the future.

Before he tries to meet up with his dad, Lucas writes him: “Every email I receive from you is pushed through the Internet like some electronic hand waiting to be shaken, or worse, taken and venerated, knuckles to forehead.”

It’s what makes Joy a delightful read, also in the sense of how delight is characterized, as a passing joy to be desired, again and again, without end.

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While the book will have its official Manila launch on April 15, it’s already available locally. Copies signed by the author may be preordered or purchased at https://www.facebook.com/GoodIntentionsBooks. They will also be available at National Bookstore and Fully Booked.)