DEAR MALAE: I swear I offered this to a bunch of publications in the straight community but no one wanted it, at least not from me, so here it is on an insignificant blog. I tried! Feel free to use. –N
Peter Nathaniel Malae’s new book Son of Amity begins with themes familiar to his readers: violence, incarceration, cultures tangled and erased by poverty, hatred for the consumer and the less-dedicated, and perhaps the Californian writer’s greatest contribution to twenty-first century literature: an identifiable search for the use of masculinity in our time.
As before, the economy of description is refreshingly socio-economic. Malae’s mission to portray common people brings us undernourished, overfed, jelly-spined poor whites, but also dignified and convincing portraits of men forgotten in prison and in Bush’s Middle-East conflict, and women rejected, imprisoned, by the ignorance in their environments.
But this is no rerun of What We Are: like Jimmy Baca before him, the author’s own evolution since he disappeared into the “Pacific Northwest” makes the reader an attractive offer to evolve according to his characters’ examples. There are three males in this dialect-rendered story. Which is the titular Son of Amity?
Here Malae repurposes his previous characterizations to disarming effect. For a start the writer’s voice, mercifully, is separating from the narrator’s. Malae always demonstrates an ear for specific slang, something that really impresses academics, but in Son of Amity, especially the memories of prison, we finally get to observe what this slang, in its various pressure and quantity, really means between characters.
Central to the three adults’ seemingly-doomed cohabitation is a highly-realistic evolution of characters’ wills and desires, something unfit in What We Are’s immediacy. Starting with revenge for a rape, the characters’ common ground shifts under them as the victim of the violence takes the will to both choose forgiveness and transform the violence into a child: Malietoa to his Samoan uncle, Tophat to his veteran father, the latter crippled by the former.
The use for masculinity is found in a shared faith in family centered around the child Benji, and not in an act or a gesture. The outcast’s longing for a family to serve –and worth serving –in previous work has arrived. As What We Are’s exasperation before an expanded mind rouses similar feelings to Immigrants in Our Own Land, so this meditation on refocused life approaches the glorious beauty of Black Mesa Poems.
Throughout the book, Malae turns his previous work’s conceits against themselves using time and natural renewal: here we hopelessly serve our past even as the future offers us a ride without reservations, in this case the innocent child at the lead. The book’s greatest charm lies in watching the three adults reluctantly choose the boy’s inspiration over their baggage. Who, then, is the Son of Amity? I would argue that it’s the boy, and I propose that the narcissistic masses of this country read this book and follow their own Malietoa, their own Tophat.
Malae never neglects the portraiture of people trying to both live up to the past and make some way of living in the present. Perhaps the clearest symbols of this are Pika’s Samoan umu Thanksgiving turkey at the book’s finale and Michael’s worship of the Vietnam vets. But the conceit and the dignity lies in Sissy’s internal monologue throughout, in which the urban, feminist, progressive reader must coexist with the fact that Sissy’s post-rape decisions come from a need to move forward without any plan.
Highly recommended for those needing an immediate dose of reality.