Review: Lysley Tenorio explores Filipino American diaspora in ‘The Son of Good Fortune’

The hero of Lysley Tenorio’s sharp and compassionate debut novel, “The Son of Good Fortune” (Ecco, 304 pp., ★★★ Out of four), isn’t sure of much about his identity, and what he is sure of isn’t good.

He knows he’s 19 and about to be a father with a woman who doesn’t want to talk to him. He knows he has a sudden $10,000 debt to pay off. He knows he can’t easily earn that money because he’s in the United States illegally. In Tagalog, he’s “tago ng tago” – hiding and hiding.

The young man’s nickname, X – short for Excel – underscores his sense of erasure. To sort out his crisis, he’s moved back in with his mother, Maxima, in a San Francisco suburb. Maxima had a brief career as an actress in Filipino action films, but now makes ends meet by catfishing American men, claiming to be a poor woman in the Philippines.

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Deception breeds deception: Excel had told his mother that he’d left to go on an archeological dig, but instead he headed to a desert encampment in Southern California called Hello City with his girlfriend, Sab. Sab’s mixed background seemed to offer all the possibilities he lacked:.

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“She looked like she could be everything,” he thinks.

Tenorio withholds the reasons for his sudden departure from Hello City, but it’s clear early on that “Good Fortune” is less a novel about clearing a debt than finding oneself. That’s a serious challenge for an undocumented teenager, but Tenorio also finds opportunities for humor within it. He drags himself back to a humiliating job at a pizza-party joint that’s willing to pay him under the table, forced to supervise the ball pit or wear cornball animal costumes (“Today, you’re balls.”; “Today, you’re the sloth.”).

When Maxima pretends her name is Perfecta and snares a wealthy suitor, she asks him to play her son, Perfecto. “Perfecta and Perfecto? Excel thinks amateur magicians or lion tamers. Maybe a washed-up pop duo from the Philippines.”.

Tenorio is a gifted, expressive writer about the Filipino American diaspora: His 2012 debut story collection, “Monstress,” shuttled between Manila and the Bay Area to explore the challenges Filipino migrants face, particularly LGBTQ ones. With the novel’s wider canvas, he’s able to more deeply explore the moral challenges that being “tago ng tago” presents for both Maxima and Excel. They have to let a loved one die alone because they can’t reveal their illegal status, and stay afloat without a support system. Catfishing is fraud, but Tenorio’s concern is with the precariousness that’s driven Maxima to it.

Maxima’s actions also reveal the divides between Americans’ confidence in their status and Excel’s lack of it. Maxima maintains dossiers of her targets’ jobs, histories and interests that make them who they are. Excel has none of that: Asked in school to draw up a family tree, he fills his chart with fanciful names “as though he’d descended from a line of wizards and sorceresses.”.

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Maxima’s racket drives the story to a tense climax, but Tenorio’s novel also delivers a powerful story about what it takes to uncover a sense of oneself when you’ve been forced to keep it under wraps.

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