Email this review


A lyrical first novel limns a troubled coming-of-age in 1970s Manila, where deviance and difference are punished by silence or brutality. Eleven-year-old Gringo, an observant child who spends long hours watching the neighborhood from an upstairs window, narrates the story of his Manila childhood. He is perhaps too adult and perceptive for his age—but these are common failings of the genre, redeemed here by the eloquence of the writing. The family is poor and unhappy. The father, Daddy Groovie, often unemployed, dreams only of escaping to America, where his sister lives; the mother, Estrella, her feelings tightly suppressed, got married only because she was pregnant; one-year-older brother Pipo, of whom Gringo is extraordinarily protective, likes to dress in women’s clothes and has thrice been crowned “Miss Unibers” in childhood versions of the beauty pageant; and when he’s drunk, Daddy Groovie beats Pipo and Estrella while Gringo looks on helplessly. The neighbors don’t intervene either, Manila being a place where umbrellas are carried both in rain and sun as a means of protection from what is best neither seen nor known. Gringo has had to grow up fast: After Pipo is brutally raped by Boy Manicure, the owner of the street’s Beauty Parlor, Gringo helps him clean up; an older acquaintance shows Gringo the hideout where Pipo is coupling with other young gays; and when Boy is murdered by an unknown adult, Gringo confesses that it was his shorts, not Pipo’s, that police found on the premises. Daddy Groovie gets his visa and, once settled in the US, sends for his family, but only the boys will go: Estrella belongs in Manila. Gringo’s responsibilities for his brother must continue. Sometimes overwrought, but even so an evocative and subtly different take on the loss of innocence. A promising debut.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-345-42888-9
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Ballantine
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 1999