NOELLE Q. DE JESUS Reviews
Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay
(Stripes Publishing Limited, 2019)
Randy Ribay’s book, Patron Saints Of Nothing is immensely readable, and has a likeable, sympathetic protagonist. In fact, Jay is the appropriate, perfectly normal “every teen” to take Ribay's readers through what’s been going on in the Philippines. The horrific “normal” state that began when Duterte was elected in 2016 and his brutal flagship policy, the Drug War is the backdrop to this family drama. However, in Ribay's story, I find the political competes with the personal. What causes Jay to postpone his freshman year of college and travel back to Manila with a plan to find out what happened to his cousin, Jun, who had stopped writing him all of a sudden because he had disappeared? The relationship, presented simply as a given, is for me, a heavy-handed "tell" instead of an organic "show". When Jay stays with his cousin’s family who is shockingly silent, and almost unbelievably harsh regarding Jun, their redemption in the end, strikes me as unearned.
The novel stays within its first -person point of view in its 366 pages, which may feel a little constricting for readers who are accustomed in this length of a book to also encounter different perspectives. Perhaps this is more a function of the book’s targeted audience than anything else, but I was one of those readers that did feel the limitations of that sole point-of-view. That said, Ribay does an admirable job of describing the Pinoy family dynamics heavily laced with religion that is often the default makeup of the Filipino lifestyle, seen from still fairly foreign, if Filipino-American eyes. The relationship between the two cousins is pounded into the reader as to almost render it contrived, not quite organic—played out one-sidedly in letters from Jun to Jay. Perhaps this plays into why the political stole conflict from the personal, when these two young men, these Patron Saints of Nothing, might have been allowed to foster a much stronger bond played out on the actual pages.
All said, cards on the table, I am not PSN’s target reader, and Ribay should be proud of what he’s done here, being a Dante to young readers, Fil-AM or Not, taking them through Duterte’s hell in the city and showing how things can simultaneously be true, and not true.
More mature readers may see the climax coming and find it slightly dissatisfying even though it’s true enough. Nevertheless, it’s a good book, not without flaws that most likely, its target readers will overlook.
I find Ribay best in his descriptions of the country, the simple family life and the very real, relateable and spirited Tita Chato and Tita Ines who take Jay in with more natural clan love than any of the other Filipino relatives, indeed than even Jay’s own parents, and that in itself has its own truthful poignance.
“The impossibly dense housing of the city and its surrounding suburbs has given way to lush, green countryside. Squared plots of rice paddies lined with palm trees and nipa huts slide past. Mountainous jungles loom in the horizon. I’m just as struck as the last time I was here by the contrast between the smoggy, overpopulated cities with their garbage-choked waterways and the rural provinces where farmers wearing wide-brimmed salakot still plow fields with carabao. It feels like two different worlds.”
I am happy for all the accolades the book has earned, and wish Randy Ribay more success as his career continues to take flight. Patron Saints of Nothing unintentionally simplifies things the way many books in the YA genre do, still, it deserves pride of place on the shelves of every Fil-Am teen in America, for its story, but also, for its warnings. It is the first piece of literature to take up the darkness of these Duterte years, and that is truly something.
Noelle Q. de Jesus is the author of two short fiction collections, Cursed and Other Stories (Penguin Random House SEA 2019) and Blood Collected Stories (Ethos Books Singapore 2015, Winner of the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book Award for the Short Story). She lives with her husband in Singapore.
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