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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL

Feet Planted Firmly in Her Two Worlds : THE GANGSTER OF LOVE by Jessica Hagedorn; Houghton Mifflin; $21.95, 311 pages

October 28, 1996|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A definition is like a lasso: Whatever we fail to catch in its narrow circle escapes us. So a complicated person who tries to define herself--like Raquel "Rocky" Rivera, the rock singer heroine of Jessica Hagedorn's latest novel, "The Gangster of Love"--has to keep tossing out her rope.

Born in the Philippines, Rocky moves to San Francisco as a teenager in the 1970s with her mother, Milagros, and her brother, Voltaire. American pop culture sweeps her away. Rocky dyes her hair purple, talks dirty, lives with her guitar-playing boyfriend, Elvis Chang, takes their band, the Gangster of Love, to New York, experiments with drugs and sex and has a baby out of wedlock.

A thoroughgoing rebel, it seems.

Yet Rocky knows this definition doesn't quite fit. She loves the family she has left, just as Milagros remains emotionally bound to her distant, philandering husband in Manila. The two women have more in common than either cares to admit.

Milagros, having fled the machismo of a Filipino marriage, finds that independence has its price. She's an outsider in America. She can't stop being an old-style flirt and a guilt-ridden Catholic. Suddenly short of money, she depends on fellow immigrants to patronize her food-catering service.

Rocky's bid for a life of her own is similarly ambiguous. She uses rock 'n' roll both to express her individuality and to join the American mainstream. Songs she writes out of her sense of being different become part of a mass medium that is wiping out cultural differences worldwide.

Like Milagros, Rocky finds herself as much of an outsider as ever. The people closest to her are all outsiders themselves--Elvis, her on-and-off boyfriend, whose very name is schizophrenic; Keiko Van Hiller, a flamboyantly multiethnic, bisexual artist; the troubled Voltaire, who wishes he were Jimi Hendrix; the Carabao Kid, a dirt-poor manual laborer and poet; and her gay Uncle Marlon, a dancer and bit-part actor in Hollywood.

Hagedorn ("Dogeaters") turns all of this into comedy. There's a joke in this warm and inventively written novel, beneath the classic Filipino farm-worker tales, the yo-yo lore, the raunchy song lyrics, the fantasy interviews with Hendrix. It's a joke on almost everyone in the book, as well as on the reader. It's this: Nothing is more American than feeling alien. Nothing fits in quite like being a misfit, surrounded by assorted other misfits.

Where Hagedorn's vision differs from that of many other ethnic writers--Amy Tan comes to mind--is that neither the traditional nor the modern world is given more weight.

In a Tan novel, the reality that her younger, assimilated characters know is always overwhelmed, sooner or later, by the much deeper and more terrible reality experienced by their Chinese-born parents.

In "The Gangster of Love," however, rock 'n' roll's appeal to Rocky is fully equal to Milagros' grim memories of the Japanese occupation of Manila during World War II. Rocky may settle down a bit after having her baby, recognize her own Catholic guilt and conclude that she's "just like everyone else in my family," but she remains suspended between worlds--and Hagedorn makes us feel she's right to do so.

This is because, as the novel's rambling, many-voiced structure suggests, to be suspended is also to be inclusive. It's the people who define things too tightly--like Rocky's prim older sister Luz, who answers the questions "What's Filipino? What's genuine? What's in the blood?" by refusing to emigrate, staying in Manila with her father and inheriting her mother's privileged status--who miss the opportunity to grow.

Keep throwing that lasso, Hagedorn seems to be saying. But above all, make your loop wider.

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