Book Review: Brown Rice, A Memoir by Ted Yabut Jr. (Epiphany Press, 2015, 558p.)
Brown Rice reads more like an adventure-humor-romance-thriller set in Philippines during the turbulent years of the Marcos dictatorship in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s the personal passage of someone who idolized JFK, joined the fraternity of Marcos, and was in search of the woman that a psychic claimed would change his life.
The backdrop of Manila in the ‘70s -- student demonstrations, barricades and tyranny -- puts us in the midst of the First Quarter Storm, the unrest and turmoil that preceded the declaration of martial law, the start of the Marcos dictatorship. The characters from high school, college and Spike’s fraternity who get involved in his life are funny, genuine and unforgettable. His character portrayal is more than mere sketch but falls short of multidimensional portraiture; but it’s refined enough for an up-close glimpse of the character’s essence with no armchair psychoanalytical jargon to boost the author’s own superiority. Thus, while the memoir is “personal,” it is never narcissistic.
What sets a memoir apart from an autobiography is simply the “drama” of recounting real life incidents. Yet, in passing, Spike drops good pedagogical pointers about journalism (which won him the editorship of the Collegian), acting (high school days), TV production, ad making -- and Donald Trump’s favorite topic, the art of the deal. At times, it reads like episodes of “Mad Men,” with a real-life Don Draper in the world of ad campaigns, slogans, placements, packs of Marlboros, whiskey and fast women (Spike’s colorful, lexical knife spares no particulars in the episodes about the sultry Evelyn’s X-rated ways). There too is what I see as thrusts of the narrative: a hint dropped in a previous chapter is peeled back in full glory in a latter one.
Unlike a biography or an autobiography, it tells the story “from a life” rather than “of a life.” Relatively true to form, it is a collection of Spike’s memories that he set down on paper, of moments or events that are seemingly factual (largely verifiable, at least by the people concerned --hopefully still alive -- that Spike writes about). A few pages into his 500-page-plus book, you are confronted with that potent cocktail of courage and recklessness that Spike uses to distill his peculiar choice of truths, and his honest assessments of various personalities that never drift into parody.
I’ve always found comfort in the Pauline metaphor for life as an “earthly tent” (2 Cor. 5:1) because it brings to mind our mortal journey, the places where we “pitch” our tent and the tentativeness of our experience. Taking a survey of Spike’s life from the book, I come to the same conclusion as Gemma Nemenzo, author of Heart In Two Places: An Immigrant's Journey, that his is largely a privileged one with “access to a wide range of options for their future, and whose growing up happened under the specter of political upheaval”; although “some rain must fall” (his father’s financial difficulty, infidelity and some scandal, for instance). While he does not outright admit to being a “bourgeois,” he enjoyed the home leisure of being attended to by maids – in fact, at one point, he had a crew consisting of a family chauffeur, cook, laundry maid and nannies. Elsewhere, his worldly encounter came packaged with upper middle-class opportunities. Thus, there is no “class struggle” guilt in his road to adulthood, no identity crisis questioning the legitimacy of his family’s economic status. In fact, he is honest about his indictment of leftist politics.
Its claim as a coming of age story is well supported by the various transitions Spike went through, from adolescence to adulthood, and even all the way to the workaday world. It is in the circumstances of encounter that he is transformed and finds his existential voice. There is the trauma of witnessing a death from a car accident, when he cradled the dying old man’s head on the way to the hospital (p. 158). There is his feeble attempt at seduction, his clichéd lingua de amor and then later his sexual awakening – the usual manhood fare, you’d think– but in Spike’s hands reading more like the Kama Sutra. There is his “close encounter of the third kind” – his near deflowering by a homosexual friend – described like an escape from death. Then that life-changing awakening of becoming the tried and true fraternity brother in the oldest Greek letter society in Asia – following his father’s example.
Spike makes good use of that “iceberg” approach to things ala Hemingway in which he focuses on surface elements without full discussion of underlying themes. Yet, his stage training and understanding of dialogues -- distinction of speech patterns, habits -- help him in explaining deep historical contexts. Martial law as a moral (or immoral) concept is revealed through a series of dialogues between him and his father, for example. Spike’s application of William Strunk Jr.’s Elements of Style is palpable in every page.
There are no encroaching footnotes – although some readers might wonder about what happened to the line-up of oddities he parades before us. There is no index listing topics and themes, or a chronology (although Spike is careful in including the year in his chapter heading), or a genealogy, or bibliography, which may disturb cultural-historical scholars. So it is refreshing, almost like the Gospels. We see eyewitness accounts of contemporary Philippine history – all written in a journalistic flair, as provocative as novels and certainly reported in fiction-worthy imageries and tone.
His simple ending with (as they prepare to leave for Canada – p. 555)
(“Do you think we’ll make it?” Anne said.
“Well, that depends. Are we smart or are we lucky?”)
are clues us to the possibility of a sequel.
To purchase a copy of Brown Rice: www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01BO3M1X0
Alfred “Alfie” Kwong, before retirement, practiced as a Chartered Accountant in British Columbia, Canada. A graduate of the University of the Philippines, he currently serves as elder of a Reformed Church in Richmond, British Columbia and leads Bible studies with Bible Study Fellowship.