Gangster of Love
by Jessica Hagedorn

Houghton Mifflin: 1996
311 pp., $22.95
ISBN: 0-395-75412-7

Review by Allen Gaborro

Allen Gaorro was born March 4, 1966 in Manila, Phillipines. He is presently working as an Editorial Analyst and as a freelance writer. Allen graduated from College of Notre Dame in Belmont, CA with B.A. in Political Science. He has other work featured in AKDA Philippine Literary Magazine and in Ed's Internet Book Review.

As a Filipino-American author, Jessica Hagedorn deviates from the serene romanticism and composed formalism of her traditionalist Filipina peers. Inclined to eschew determinate literary conventions, Hagedorn instills the narrative of her book, The Gangster of Love, with an audaciousness worthy of her maverick genius, and with a mischievous energy that bestows her novel with a life of its own.

If Hagedorn's widely-praised, first novel Dogeaters is, as writer Robert Stone called it, "the definitive novel of the encounter between the Philippines and America," then The Gangster of Love is a continuum of that motif, an absorbing postscript to the author's fictionalization of the encounters and exchanges that take place among cultures. Flaunting expressive candor with a considerable measure of eccentricism, The Gangster of Love attempts to illustrate the impact of cultural assimilation on the human condition.

Early in the novel, we read of the arrival of three members of the Rivera family in San Francisco in the same year that legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix dies of a drug overdose (the presence of such a popular symbol of nonconformity in the book is indicative of the undercurrent of disaffection running through parts of the story). Seeking solace in the ruins of her broken marriage--a result of her husband's infidelities—in the Philippines, Milagros Rivera decides to emigrate to America with two of her young children, Voltaire and Raquel, to start life anew.

Perhaps as an allusion to the belief held by some that parents in America languish under the ascendance of their children, Hagedorn assigns the mother figure of Milagros a subordinate place relative to her teenaged daughter, Raquel, (a.k.a. Rocky). The novel is distinctively tailored around Rocky's character, whose vibrant nature and unwavering pride stand front and center in the story. Even though she is initially "overcome by helplessness in the face of family, blood, and the powerful force of my own reluctant love," she refuses to be held accountable to anyone but herself. As far as she is concerned, America is there for the taking and neither the opinions nor the actions of others will deter her from reaping its dividends.

Soon enough, the best and worst of what America has to offer casts its spell over Rocky. After graduating from high school, she thrusts herself headlong into American hip culture. She experiments with drugs, falls in love with a rock musician named Elvis Chang, has a partly sexual, but mainly platonic relationship with a bisexual female photographer, and defies her mother's authority which Rocky believes had "diminshed" from the moment they first stepped foot in the United States. The Philippines meanwhile, "with all its taboos and obligations seemed a million miles away."

Heedless of the cultural tradewinds whirling about her, Rocky gradually establishes a psychological niche for herself in asserting her independence as a female spirit. Geared to explore the vastness of America's potentialities, she decides to take a chance by embarking on a cross-country trip with Elvis Chang to New York. Armed with little more than a limited amount of funds, a shaky pickup truck, and a surfeit of dreams envisaging musical triumph in the Big Apple, the couple make plans to start up a rock band called "The Gangster of Love."

The journey to "Big, scary, unknown New York" facilitates the process of Rocky's cultural osmosis which becomes increasingly transparent as she subconsciously marginalizes her Filipina identity. With each passing day, she comes to understand people and her experiences through what is for the most part, an Americanized prism. Rather than a case of two cultures perpetuating an accord of reciprocal interrelation, the reader can almost feel the upsurge of cultural Americana as it subtly eclipses Rocky's "Filipinaness."

Rocky descends upon New York certain that she has found her Garden of Eden and equally certain that she will never leave it. "Being in New York was an adventure, fresh and filled with an assortment of witty, noble characters and the perverse high of near violent encounters on subways and streets. New York was a source of intense inspiration, a daily barrage of worthy movie moments. How could I dream of living anywhere else?"

However, she is unprepared for the severity of New York's concrete jungle. Unable to hold a steady job and with the troubled "Gangster of Love" band on the verge of disbanding, Rocky devolves into the epitome of urban despair. The city that was once her utopia, has now deteriorated into the "capital of pain and desire." Bizarre dreams bedevil her mind as she struggles with "borderline poverty" and "self-pity." Regrets also begin to permeate her thoughts: "I don't know why I choose to remain in New York, why I don't go screaming back to my fading mother in San Francisco…or to the tropical banshees that await me in Manila."

It is true for some that the reality of the here-and-now exposes the promise of the future as nothing more than a web of deceit and illusion. Therefore, it is also true that as a consequence, individuals backtrack into time to return to the source of the authenticity of their being. In Rocky's case, the disappointment of New York forces her to rediscover her essence as a Filipina by reawakening her neglected memories of the past and of the Philippines. She reminisces, for example, about the "Carabao Kid," a Filipino-American poet who she listened to as a young child. In contrasting America and the Philippines, the Carabao Kid painted a distressing picture for the former, while reserving wonderfully stylized adjectives for the latter. "America was here: vast, inhospitable, and harsh. The Philippines was there: distant, lush, soulful, and sexy."

Rocky's parents are also granted a space in her nostalgic reveries. She remarks that her mother was "a woman brave enough to abandon her marriage, but foolish enough to pine for the same man who betrayed her." She describes her father as "a jumble of fragmented images and shadowy memories." In addition, Hagedorn incorporates into the book a series of sociological, religious, behavioral, and linguistic vignettes common to the Philippines that will prevail upon readers to believe in Rocky's reaffirmation of her cultural foundations.

Near the end of the story, Rocky returns to the Philippines to be with her dying father. Her return to the home islands comes after the passing of her mother in San Francisco and after the birth of her daughter Venus, who helps put an end to Rocky's feeling of "immortality." Her homecoming also dramatizes the culmination of a cultural cycle. Rocky is, quite simply, an example of how art is a derivation of life itself. Conceived as a full--blooded Pinay, but maturing into an internalized American, Rocky consummates the two identities into an irresolute synthesis. By doing so, she elevates herself as a model for many real-life Filipinos living in America today who find themselves drifting amidst their cultural duality, each in his or her own way finding it difficult to strike a necessary equilibrium between the old world and the new.

Some may judge The Gangster of Love as a bit too risqué in terms of its language and sexuality. But others will be drawn to it for its creative forthrightness and for its freestanding discourse on cultural and social relationships. The novel's diverse cast of characters are also important assets, for they have a great deal to say about the multilayered nature of human thought and emotion and about how the two are channeled towards the external environment.

All told, The Gangster of Love speaks to the inherent autonomy of the novel. As a writer living in an ethos of multiculturalism and artistic freedom, Jessica Hagedorn insists on composing her works in conditions bereft of any form of censorship or homogeneity. Writing in what is for her, ideal literary surroundings, Hagedorn devotes herself to preserving the sovereignty of her works while she continues to conjure up lavishly exceptional stories like The Gangster of Love.

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