Book Review

When Henry enters a Walmart to steal medicine for his sick child, he glances up to see an American flag dangling from its side, “turning its stripes into prison cell bars.” With thirty-eight cents in his pocket, he struggles to focus on his mission while being enticed and overwhelmed by the abundance of goods on display. “The promise of so much plenty is dizzying,” we learn, “and instantly shrivels Henry down to humbler proportions, a morsel he can only hope might go totally undetected.” Making every effort to manage an ever-dwindling budget while living out of a pickup truck with his young son, Henry is shut out from a society that swells with infinite largesse. The limits of his freedom steadily close in on him as he is brought in proximity with his nation’s wealth:

Doesn’t seem right, doesn’t seem fair. Whatever he owns he must inevitably relinquish. Wherever he goes he is universally rejected. He doesn’t belong because he can’t. His exile is everlasting. But is it really too steep an order to be equal to, or simply among, these people?

A T-shirt on display spells out the kind of freedom America offers: “Freedom isn’t free.” It is an irony Jakob Guanzon forces us to consider in his debut novel, Abundance, by making us privy to the lives of those to whom America’s abundance is always within sight, but never quite within reach. This contradiction is driven home early on in the novel by the fate of Henry’s father, a Filipino academic who comes to America for graduate school. Papa drops out of his doctoral program when Henry is born, and he struggles to find stable work aligned with his academic interests after being involved in an altercation with a student who makes fun of his accent. He eventually lands a job flipping “run-down, inner-city properties commandeered by the nouveau riche.” As he works, he listens to audiobooks to stay sane, and bills and coupons begin to take the place of his novels, dictionaries, and typewriter on the family dining table. Papa becomes an embittered man who struggles to relate with his Americanized son, who deals with his alienation at home by falling in with the wrong crowd and gradually sliding into a life of crime. The tragedy of Papa’s sacrifice can be summed up by the dollar figure of his life insurance after his death: $8,772.04. It is not even enough to cover the debts he incurred to pay for his wife’s cancer treatments and keep his family above water, an uncomfortable truth Henry is forced to reckon with when he inherits his father’s debts, along with this measly calculation of his father’s worth.

There’s a particularly poignant moment between father and son as they sit at a sports bar after several months of working side by side at a construction site where Papa teaches Henry the tricks of the trade. After Papa gives him advice on his new job, his tone softens as he advises Henry to enroll in night school, adding that Henry should study something practical. “You don’t want to end up like me, ah,” Papa says, after a gloomy chuckle. It is a scene that brings to mind my encounters with highly educated Filipino immigrants forced to accept menial work in a society that encourages others to “dream big.” Henry senses in his father a quiet loneliness resulting from an acceptance of his diminished place:

A wistful air settled over Papa. He twiddled with the headphones hooped behind his neck. Childlike, lonely. It then occurred to Henry how out of place the old man was in a joint like this, even while disguised in the sweat-stiffened denim of all the other working men’s uniforms. How hard and dreary it must have been to stay here, stranded in flyover country now that the lifelines of companionship and his own aspirations had been severed so long ago. Among these plains of quiet, bite-your-tongue complacency, Papa was a cultural castaway. It seemed these hopes for Henry’s future were the last shreds of driftwood that he could cling to as he waded along, then floated away.

Chapters in the novel begin with the dollar amounts Henry has on hand, a figure that fluctuates throughout the book. These figures signify possibilities, as when Henry decides to treat his son to a Happy Meal and a check into a motel so that they can have proper showers and mattresses to sleep on, or else limitations, as when Henry examines the dollar figure his father’s life amounts to, or when he doesn’t have enough money to buy medicine to alleviate his son’s fever. The possibilities and limitations of each amount exist in tension with one another, tempting Henry with the freedoms they afford him, while reminding him of how finite his freedoms are with every dollar spent. When he comes into money, he spends it freely, happy to be granted a momentary respite from the harsh realities of poverty and homelessness. After a job interview, he spends whatever money he has left on a celebratory beer and cigar, for as he believes, “he deserves it all.” It is easy to empathize with Henry when he chafes against the limitations imposed on him by a capitalist society, especially when it perpetuates the idea that everyone is entitled to the kind of life they want, as long as they pay for it:

. . . he’s never done anything treasonous, nothing against the country. His life sentence to the status of an untouchable seems both cruel and unusual. All he wants is to be like any one of these people, these Americans doing the best they can with the itty-bitty they got, one day and purchase at a time.

Henry’s desire to rectify his past mistakes by giving his son a good childhood in spite of their hardships is undermined by capitalism’s insistence that one must pay for one’s wants and needs. Their relationship is central to the novel, and Guanzon cleverly turns the redemption narrative on its head by allowing Henry to repeatedly fail in his attempts to care for his son. His failures make us wonder if he alone is to blame for falling short of his duties, when we see just how hard he tries to be a good father, and a good citizen of his country. Abundance raises the question of what constitutes virtue in this society, if money alone can give substance to our good intentions. Because we are made to see Henry’s innate goodness beneath his many failings, we are made to root for him, and so when Henry lets out a final, primal scream, we scream with him, knowing his fate is undeserved.

About the Reviewer

Monica Macansantos earned her MFA in fiction and poetry from the University of Texas – Michener Center for Writers, and her PhD in creative writing from the Victoria University of Wellington. Her work has appeared in Colorado Review, The Masters Review, Failbetter, Lunch Ticket, and Anomaly, among other places. She has been awarded residencies at Hedgebrook, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, the I-Park Foundation, Storyknife Writers Retreat, and Moriumius.