A Chinese Filipino leaves life in America and tries to come to terms with his Manila family’s ill-gotten wealth.
Prizewinning playwright Ong’s rangy successor to his critically praised debut (Fixer Chao, 2000) is a rather more diffuse book, despite its consistent focus on a strongly imagined central character. He’s 40-ish Roger Caracera, a Columbia University writing teacher, whom we meet as he’s bringing home for burial the body of his father Jesus, a notoriously corrupt sugar baron. Roger suffers silently through a lavish funeral tribute stage-managed by his paternal Aunt Irene, a privileged matron who wears their family’s wealth like a glossy second skin. And when Jesus’s will unaccountably (and unbelievably) leaves half a million dollars to Roger, the guilty “prodigal” undertakes to make restitution for his father’s rape of their homeland’s resources—for example, “doling out financial reparations to the descendants of the Caracera cane cutters.” But Roger’s charity is repeatedly refused or manipulated—by a formerly idealistic Peace Corps worker who has insulated herself with creature comforts; a “Missionary woman” unwilling to challenge the Catholic Church’s ban on birth control; a teenaged tennis brat who lavishes contempt on all who try to help him; and 15-year-old gay hustler Pitik (a.k.a. “Blueboy”), an ingenuous romantic who wants his benefactor’s love even more than the latter’s money. The story leapfrogs thus among numerous incidents and viewpoints, coming to a muted conclusion with Roger’s second return to Manila for a meeting with his mother Teresa, a vibrant beauty who had lost her soul to the Carcaeras’ duplicitousness and has languished for decades in an insane asylum. It’s an oddly unsatisfying climax to what ought to have been a riveting tale but instead separates out into unstructured, flickering fragments.
The Disinherited was probably written earlier than Fixer Chao, and is in no way its equal.