The Philippines is a land of storytellers, but the saga of the modern nation remains largely unknown beyond its own shores. Han Ong would appear to be in a good position to fill the post of bard. The native Filipino immigrated to the U.S. when he was 16, achieved success there as a playwright and won a MacArthur "genius" fellowship. His first novel, Fixer Chao, was about a Filipino male prostitute in New York City who poses as a feng-shui expert to fleece the rich.
In his second novel, Ong comes home. The Disinherited is a morality tale set in Manila in 2000, moving throughout Philippine society, from élite private sports clubs to pestilential slums. Roger Caracera is the youngest son of a sugar magnate, who has come of age in California and now lives in New York City, where he teaches writing at Columbia University. The novel begins as he returns to the Philippines to bury his estranged father: in a scene straight out of a Victorian potboiler, the will is read in the posh attorney's offices, and Caracera learns that his father has bequeathed to him his largest legacy, $500,000.
Full of guilt over his family's feudal wealth, Caracera decides to give the money away and commences a search for deserving recipients. Eventually, he settles on two very different protégés: a rising young tennis player and a boy prostitute who was the favorite of Caracera's late, outcast gay uncle. As the narrative proceeds, Caracera's good intentions pave a road to precisely the place they inevitably lead in proverb.
Ong, as one might expect of an accomplished playwright, has a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue and a gift for dramatic scene setting. Some of his satirical barbs carry unforgettable sting, such as an episode in which Caracera tries to wrest Blueboy, the child whore, from the clutches of an American pederast who is spoon-feeding him ice cream at a sidewalk restaurant. Caracera's discomfort in the situation is presented exquisitely, leading him to ask the same questions about his own motives as have been nagging the reader.
The book's main strength is Ong's ability to create allegories that embody emotional truths in a suspenseful narrative. Caracera's attempt to give away his fortune is a straightforward symbol of America's historical efforts to do good—and demand love—throughout the world. Yet the reader believes in him as a complex human being, so the point is conveyed without preaching.
Blueboy, who at once dazzles his patrons and suffers humiliation at their hands, is clearly a symbol of the Philippines, simultaneously naive and calculating, seductive and repellent; but here Ong veers into the outer reaches of bad taste. The boy's first scene, at a sex club in a Manila slum, is disgusting in the extreme, even as it strains credulity.
Ong's world is both flamboyant and bizarre, as his native country can often seem, but there are several off-kilter moments, strange observational lapses that flaw the fictional universe. The novel's first paragraph sets the scene for Caracera's father's funeral: "It was not a good day for a funeral procession. Temperature: ninety-two at one p.m. and expected to rise to a hundred and ten before day's end." This steep a rise in the course of an afternoon is all but impossible, as anyone with a passing familiarity with the region's weather knows; anyway, it never gets that hot in Manila, not even close. It might seem a small point, but a book that seeks to speak with authority about the Philippines unnecessarily handicaps itself with a sloppy factual error in the first paragraph.
There are too many such false notes. None of them are egregious enough individually to lose the reader, but collectively they undermine the tale's impact. Another example: although $500,000 is a lot of money for most people, as the biggest legacy of a legendary sugar tycoon—representing the wealthiest class of a nation in which the divide between rich and poor yawns wide—it's a weirdly under-the-top figure.
What sustains the reader's interest is Ong's rich use of language, which at its best reflects "the pell-mell, absurd, bountiful, magical nature of the Philippines," in Ong's generous phrase. Yet if this gifted writer is to realize his potential as a novelist-bard for the Philippines, his vision needs to be tempered by a stringent course of narrative basics.