Tyrannical Days


by Jessica Hagedorn
Penguin, 251 pp., $17.00 (paper)
Jessica Hagedorn
Anthony Barboza/Getty Images
Jessica Hagedorn, 1980s

Some good news is that Penguin is bringing greater attention to Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters with its celebration of the novel’s thirtieth anniversary, and it turns out that the book is every bit as spectacular as it was on its initial appearance. Although by the standards of both the serial-publication and the word-processor-enabled decades it’s a brief book, it is a mighty one; open it up, and a universe erupts from its modest 250 pages.

The story begins innocently enough: from an unspecified distance in the future, Rio, the book’s main narrator, looks back at an afternoon outing in 1956 with her cousin Pucha to see All That Heaven Allows, playing in Cinemascope and Technicolor at Manila’s Avenue Theater. Rio is ten and Pucha is fourteen, and they are chaperoned by Lorenza, Rio’s yaya, the family servant who looks after her.

After the movie, the three go to the Cafe España, where the girls, enraptured by midcentury Hollywood’s benign glossy dream clichés of love, America, and beauty, discuss the movie’s finer points over TruColas. To Rio’s distress, a group of boys at a table nearby start to flirt coarsely with the overdeveloped and somewhat under-brained Pucha. Worse, Pucha, obviously thrilled by the attention, cannot be budged from the café either by Lorenza or by Rio. The leader of the onslaught presses his advantage and Pucha “smiles back, blushing prettily”:

“Pucha,” I say with some desperation…. “What are you going to do—give him your phone number? You mustn’t give him your phone number. Your parents will kill you! Your parents will kill me…. He’s only a boy. A homely, fat boy…He looks like he smells bad.” Pucha gives me a withering look. “Prima, shut up. Don’t be so tanga! Remember, Rio—I’m older than you…. I don’t care if he’s a little gordito, or pangit, or smells like a dead goat. That’s Boomboom Alacran, stupid. He’s cute enough for me.”

And with this blithely efficient introduction to the potency of the Alacran family name, we begin our descent into the maelstrom that doesn’t release us until the book ends. As we soon discover, the loutish Boomboom is the crude face of the Alacran family—the flip side of his sleek, charismatic uncle, Severo Alacran, from whom the cachet of the Alacran name derives. And why is Severo so powerful?

BECAUSE, they would say. Simply because.

Because he tells the President what to do. Because he dances well. Because he tells the First Lady off. Because he dances well and collects art. Because he calls the General Nicky…. Because he employs a private army of mercenaries. Because he collects primitive art, renaissance art, and modern art. Because he owns silver madonnas, rotting statues of unknown saints, and jeweled altars lifted intact from the bowels of bombed-out churches. Because his house is not a home…

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