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Book Review : A Journey Through the Unreal Manila

December 22, 1986|CAROLYN SEE

Manila Bay by William Marshall (Viking: $15.95)

Well, there are those who say Ernest Hemingway had plenty of machismo ; that he knew that nature was "red in tooth and claw," that he knew so much about the world of men and violence and the hunt that--in "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber"--he didn't shrink from going right into the head of a wounded lion to see how he thought, during his last mano-a-mano or paw-o-a-paw-o with those tough white hunters out on safari.

But William Marshall, brash writer of international thrillers, pushes Hemingway aside. You think you know about men, violence, blood, the hunt? Move over, Bud! Let's go into the mind of a chicken, more accurately, La Loma, luckless fighting cock, as he takes on the champion cock of all time. Yes, La Loma is up against "Battling Mendez--Mendez the Great of Manila," a television celebrity who advertises his own beer on Philippine TV, and cuts ribbons at Philippine supermarket openings. Battling Mendez has gotten soft, La Loma muses, and La Loma thinks he can take him: "He saw Mendez jerk his head to keep his eye clear. He saw . . . the spur come back. All it was going to take . . . La Loma, advancing on him, his hackles up, tensed to rise in the air and come down on him like a sack of rice. He rose, he flew, he leapt, he became airborne, he described a graceful parabola, he. . . ." And then, as if all this isn't enough, La Loma thinks , alas, in familiar American-sounding cliches, "Boy, when you weren't going to get an even break, you weren't going to get an even break."

La Loma has this last thought (before he meets a grim destinyand gets sent to the chicken soup factory), because a bald-headed cock-fight-tout gets shot between the eyes, falls over on him and crushes him to death. Life can be tough in the Philippines.

The author has already remarked, by way of exposition, that: "The capital is Manila in the north island of Luzon where the main interests of the people are cock fighting, basketball and chess, a combination within the same national personality which has been known to send sociologists fresh from Western universities back to those Western universities jibbering. The climate is tropical with a wet and dry season, the people brown and almond-eyed with a propensity for romance and arson. . . ."

What we have, here, then, is not the Manila of real life, where the heroic Corazon Aquino has taken the reins of government from a debilitated Fernando Marcos; a place of international significance clucked over weekly by national news magazines, but a Manila of the mind--a whacky place where slapstick murders occur at the whim of a (perhaps racist) totally unregenerate author. This book is giddy, goofy, loony, borderline-stupid, defiantly rude, mannered, eccentric, so trapped in its excesses that most of the time it's absolutely impossible to figure out who's chasing whom, or for what reason, or what difference it makes, or sometimes for a page or two, even who's talking. But perhaps because of the predictable pieties of the holiday season, all this off-the-wall Philippine giddiness is remarkably refreshing. And if there are people on your list who are being driven mad by heavy Christmas chord changes, this loony Oriental tune may be the book for them.

To get back to the plot. Battling Mendez, that game little cock, is part of an enormous and exceedingly corrupt organization that owns everything everywhere, and of course this organization has ties high up in the Philippine government and the police department. This mighty crime cartel cannot be defeated except by a trio of highly unlikely heroes: (1) Lt. Felix Elizalde of the Western District Detective Bureau, a nice man with an even nicer wife. (2) Detective Sgt. Jesus-Vincente Ambrosio, who spends most of his time in this novel trapped in a goofy sub-plot: a crazed maniac has been traveling the streets of Manila, throwing essence of durian into taxis: "the durian was the vilest fruit on the face of the Earth . . . it smelled like a year-old sewer after a herd of water buffalos had used it as a rutting hole . . . ." Sgt. Ambrosio must capture this scent-terrorist. (3) Sgt. Bontoc, who "had been educated like all the head-hunting Bontoc tribe of northern Luzon by American Protestant missionaries and . . . could only understand basic headhunter and best Minnesota accented English. Filipino as it was murdered in Manila was a complete mystery to him."

Why bother with such a crazy set of pages put between hardcovers? Because, so much literature is "serious," and means so much to its writers and readers. Because careers are made and broken, and hearts are broken, too, from the printed word, and sometimes we don't have the courage to laugh at "literature," at everything it means.

A book like "Manila Bay" is not literature. It's not trash. It's not even a proper thriller. It would give someone like Hemingway a migraine headache. "Manila Bay" is just fun. William Marshall obviously had fun writing it, someone at Viking had fun buying it, and--if they aren't picky--a lot of bookstore browsers are going to have fun with this, too.

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