In a series of violent encounters, Peter Nathaniel Malae’s debut novel asks, What are we to do with men?
Twenty-eight year-old Paul Tusifale is too young for a midlife crisis, and with two years in San Quentin behind him, he’s way beyond coming-of-age. The hero of What We Are, a curiously obsessive first novel by Peter Nathaniel Malae, isn’t sure why he has such a bee in his bonnet, but he knows he’ll have to wait to figure it out until after dealing with the “suburban zombie on crystal meth” who spots him on a street corner at three in the morning and asks him for a handout.
In a roller-coaster series of nocturnal events, Paul fends off “the crankster,” who comes after him with a knife, then offers to treat his assailant to a burger at a nearby fast-food restaurant, where he defends a lady’s honor by shoving the burger in the crankster’s face. After passing out drunk at the feet of a statue of Jesus, Paul wakes to find “the clover-green eyes” of his old priest staring down at him; before he knows it, Paul has agreed to take part in a Cinco de Mayo rally. ¡Sí, se puede!
On its face, the novel’s title suggests both communal and individual aspects of identity. What defines Paul? If blood, he’s half Samoan, half white. If experience, his years in prison are counter-balanced by those spent at an elite all-boys’ Catholic prep school. As Paul says, he’s a tough guy who’s also smart. Raised in San Jose, CA, he’s torn between his old stomping grounds and the magnetic pull of his long-absent father in Polynesia. (Paul’s college-educated mom and working-class dad were divorced not long after he, at age nine, and his sister, at age ten, witnessed their first Filipino cockfight during a family party.) A man of dualities, the plural title could therefore refer to Paul alone.
Right down to their saintly first names, Paul shares much in common with the author. Malae achieved literary fame early when nominated for the prestigious New York Public Library Young Lion Award for his superb short-story collection, Teach the Free Man. Paul Tusifale’s vocation is poetry, and we soon learn that he’s been “lionized” with a fellowship: his poetry has garnered him the financial support, and amatory attentions, of La Dulce, a wealthy Haitian who finds him irresistible. When Paul gets accused of a hate crime at the Cinco de Mayo rally and is sent back to jail, La Dulce bails him out; she then escorts him to Silicon University of the Valley—note the acronym—where he mingles with absurdly pompous literati until it’s time for his next fistfight.
Although What We Are has some of the qualities of a philosophical novel, I often felt as if I were reading it with my thumbs—as in playing Halo—as the plot incessantly enters its main character in hand-to-hand combat. Even a job shelving books at the Santa Clara Library leads Paul into battle. When Cyrus, an elderly Iranian immigrant who is Paul’s friend and co-worker, gets mugged, Paul nearly kills the mugger. He flees, gets caught, and is charged with attempted murder. The incident dramatizes this novel’s central concern with what we’re here to do. After befriending Cyrus, Paul longs to prove his love by means of some significant act. Ordinary social interactions seem insufficient; for a strong, healthy, young male inclined to fight, anything short of lethal combat represents soul-killing compromise. And so the novel demands: What are we to do with men? How do we start them up—and, once they’re started, how do we get them to stop? Is Ritalin the answer? Ritual combat culminating in human sacrifice, as the Aztecs practiced? For a nation at war with an all-volunteer army, such questions should be compelling. In fact, readers of literary fiction may find them all to easy to ignore.
Despite the serial nature of Paul’s adventures, to the extent that What We Are has a form, it’s less picaresque romp than a sustained archetypal encounter between Father and Son. Cyrus and Paul’s complex relationship is mirrored by that of Paul and his appropriately named Uncle Rich. Plagued by memories of the Vietnam War, Uncle Rich unburdens himself to his nephew. Most of these dialogs take place in bars, with the older man drowning his sorrows in Jack Daniels as he probes Paul’s heart and his own.
In jail and awaiting trial, Paul receives a visit from Cyrus. In a short but very moving scene, Cyrus tells him that their friendship is over. “I was leaving Iran because of men like you. Thank you very much. Good-bye.”
Behind bars, Paul laments:
There are still men out there—right?—digging holes and laying brick and pouring cement and driving truck and lifting weights at the gym not for the mirror or the Maxim recommendation on how to get women, but to—what’s this?—be brave and strong in the endurance of pain and to dispense their masculine anger in a socially acceptable venue. I mean, right? We’re still out there, us dying men, dying to die for our woman, our child, our cause, whatever it is, and if we can’t, then just being strong for them, being strong period, imperturbable in this storm of life.
The murder charge soon dropped, the novel follows our would-be hero as he goes to work in his uncle’s real-estate business. By imagining “the smoothness of vanilla milkshakes” Paul is able to get through the day without ending up in handcuffs. Various social issues are examined, from illegal immigration to contemporary child rearing, from walk-a-thons to sub-prime mortgages. Paul’s virility fails him when he attempts to pleasure an old woman who has had a mastectomy. Paul plays handball with Norteño gang members. Paul saves his white brother-in-law from getting beaten up (again.) Paul quotes Kerouac and Shakespeare. While going seventy on the freeway, Paul spars verbally with a Hummer driver who responds by cutting him off and… everything goes black. To Be Continued…
One of the novel’s final images is of Paul careening down a steep and treacherous path on his bicycle, “the gravity of the real fake world in which I live too strong to brake against.” That pretty much says it all.