'The Son Of Good Fortune' By Lysley Tenorio Explores Belonging And Place
San Diego-raised Lysley Tenorio's new novel, "The Son of Good Fortune," explores the life of two undocumented immigrants from the Philippines, Maxima Maxino, a former B-movie action star, and her son, Excel.
Excel, a 19-year-old undocumented Filipino man, was born mid-air on a flight from Manila to San Francisco. "He doesn't see many prospects in a world that is so unwelcoming to the undocumented," said Tenorio.
"We're not really here," Maxima told Excel on his tenth birthday, defining their undocumented status. "TNT," she explained, means tago ng tago in Tagalog, which translates to "hiding and hiding."
Excel's journey unfolds along two intertwined timelines, in two towns: Colma — known for its 17 cemeteries — with Maxima, and a tiny, vibrant desert hamlet with his girlfriend.
"When he has the opportunity to move to a sort of off-the-grid desert community called Hello City in Southern California with his girlfriend Sab, he takes it. He decides here might be a place where I can reinvent myself, where it doesn't really matter who you are or where you come from, just that you sort of do unto others," Tenorio said.
The novel, Tenorio's first, is a strong entry into the canon of California fiction. Maxima and Excel's California is full of dreams and sunshine, but he doesn't shy away from the weird and unexpected. Colma is home to Excel and Maxima's tiny apartment, the Chuck E. Cheese-like terrors of Excel's part-time job at a spy-themed pizza place and the quiet sweetness of the cemeteries, but it's close enough to the magic and dazzle of San Francisco. And Hello City, a makeshift artist and outcast community near the border, just outside of El Centro is modeled after Slab City.
With Tenorio's penchant for writing vivid settings and richly untethered characters, the novel contrasts a powerful sense of place with Maxima and Excel's equally powerful placelessness.
"Whenever you craft a sort of fiction, whether it be a short story or a novel, all these different components — plot, character, setting — they all interact with one another," said Tenorio. "Because my characters Excel and Maxima don't really have a home, or aren't sure what their sense of home is, I think I really have to rely on the particulars of whatever setting I'm using. If I can find the nuances and even quirks of these places, I try to align them with the particulars of the characters themselves."
While Excel is driven by warring desires to hide and find a home, Maxima, meanwhile, is a somewhat enigmatic presence in Excel's life. She obsessively watches her own old films and scams men online, luring them to wire her money. Dwelling on the margins herself, Maxima does the best she can given her situation.
"Maxima's strength is something that I'm hoping readers will be drawn to. So much of her character and really this novel was about recognizing and honoring the strength of this woman, this mother," Tenorio said. "One of Excel's challenges, I think, is his sort of inability to recognize just how strong his mother is."
Tenorio was raised in the San Diego suburb of Mira Mesa, and his time surrounded by its diversity also informed his work.
"It wasn't a hyphenated America; it wasn't necessarily an immigrant America. It was 'oh, this is my American childhood, this is my American school, this is my American reality,'" Tenorio said.
He committed himself to rendering this world for others.
"When I write fiction, one of my objectives is to really claim and put forth this idea that Filipinos are an integral part of the American reality. And I think growing up in Mira Mesa really instilled that belief in me," Tenorio said.
Some of the stories in his spectacular 2012 short story collection, "Monstress," — the 2014 KPBS One Book, One San Diego selection — were written nearly two decades ago. The difference between writing immigrant stories then and writing Excel and Maxima's story right now, Tenorio said, is mostly in the form. In a short story, he aims for an economy of prose and narrative, whereas in "The Son of Good Fortune," he relished the chance to dwell in his characters.
"I needed these moments of pause to sustain the narrative, and those moments of pause are real opportunities to understand who these characters were psychologically and emotionally. So, becoming a writer more concerned with that interiority was a very new experience for me," Tenorio said.
In the book, the pauses manifest often in quiet places where Excel steps out of the action — on his apartment's roof, in the break room with an elderly coworker, or alone at night on a Hello City helipad. Those pauses are when we understand Excel best, because we're watching him find his place.
Lysley Tenorio will appear at a virtual author event with Warwick's Books on Monday at 6:30 p.m.