MAYOR OF THE ROSES COVER
"HOME" THAT IS
FOREIGN & SURREAL
A Review of Marianne Villanueva's "Mayor of the Roses"
Barbara Jane Reyes
I’d previously been perusing the stories in Marianne Villanueva’s Mayor of the Roses, and I have also heard her read different stories from this book at various Bay Area literary venues.
I think this collection is effective in plumbing the particulars of the narrator’s world, and even her neuroses. Throughout the collection, there are linked narratives: the world of Malou, her husband Vic, their son Johnmel, her husband’s co-worker the sexy Selena. It is and isn’t unclear whether Vic and Selena are having an affair, but it is clear that he is fixated on her, that they’ve moved far beyond “harmless flirtation” (as if there were such a thing for married people) into the realm of inappropriate physical and emotional intimacy.
At least in Malou’s mind, Vic would do Selena if he could, and so his being out of the house without explanation or late home from work becomes cause for Malou to speculate. It’s this kind of neurosis that creeps under your skin as a reader. You want to tell her to stop it, stop making herself crazy, but you also know she’s justified in imagining the lengths to which Vic would go just to smell Selena’s aggressive, animal musky perfume, or touch her hair, or brush up against her thigh. Incidentally, Selena is an Asian immigrant as well, and she is also married.
So I actually find these kinds of stories admirable; Villanueva is giving us immigrant in America narratives. They are about struggling through Silicon Valley job layoffs, the boredom of suburban life, going crazy in cubicle farms. These are average, middle-class people, living, working, thinking that perhaps their son’s schoolteacher is racist but being unable to pin it down to any blatant actions. Vic and Malou love each other, fall out of love with each other, raise a family together, experience middle age together.
There are some stories here which feel more like journal entries that are musings and observations on a few related topics then strung together into a story. I find myself at the end of these stories wondering if I missed something, or thinking, wait, that’s it?
Then there is the title story, “Mayor of the Roses,” which is a Balikbayan woman’s perspective of a brutal gang rape of a local young beauty queen and the double murder of the beauty queen and her boyfriend, perpetrated by the mayor of a small Philippine town, and his men. The perspective of the Balikbayan woman is important here, in the way she understands the thorough corruption of a system of which she is no longer a part but a spectator, which not only allows this kind of brutality as sport, but also rewards its perpetrators. The role of the speaker is as witness to the crazy Philippine media spectacle of the trial. She is so distanced or removed that even outrage is almost abstract to her.
So this here is a Balikbayan narrative that I also appreciate; little of this stereotypical pilgrimage to the idyllic motherland suspended in mythic time. In fact, her other Balikbayan stories are also rife with unromantic themes; the narrator’s married brother’s domestic violence, her father’s diabetic amputations, the illness and decline of the family’s longtime driver. What does an employer family do with their longtime servants who are no longer useful to them? What is the family’s obligation?
So she finds herself returning to a “home” that is foreign and surreal, brutal and suffocating, morally difficult, in which the Balikbayan can only be an ineffectual witness and a spectator.
Note: This review was previously printed on Barbara Jane Reyes' website. It has been reprinted with permission from the author.
ABOUT GUEST WRITER:
Barbara Jane Reyes is the author of Diwata (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2010), winner of the Global Filipino Literary Award for Poetry and a finalist for the California Book Award. She was born in Manila, Philippines, raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, and is the author of two previous collections of poetry, Gravities of Center (Arkipelago Books, 2003) and Poeta en San Francisco (Tinfish Press, 2005), which received the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets. She is also the author of the chapbooks Easter Sunday (Ypolita Press, 2008) Cherry (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2008), and For the City that Nearly Broke Me (Aztlan Libre Press, 2012).