If Surrealists told stories around the campfire, they might do well to bring a copy of Eric Gamalinda’s new book of short fiction, People Are Strange. Here is a collection that contains a swath of wide-ranging episodes that take the reader through a gamut of emotions, not the least of which is surprise.
His work reminds me of when I took the bus to work, before I had the beat-up car I drive now. Strangers would approach me while I waited for my ride. They would talk to me as though we were long lost friends and clue me in on the latest episodes of their lives. Not surprisingly, the stories were often bizarre, but I (almost) always appreciated the little snapshots of a life un-glimpsed. Gamalinda’s stories are like that; they draw you in and suddenly you find yourself in another world.
Gamalinda was born and raised in Manila and now lives in New York City. Many of his stories touch on his place of birth in one way or another. His first piece, titled “Formerly Known As Bionic Boy,” involves a young man in Manila with special powers. He becomes known, especially in the tabloids, as the “Bionic Boy” and performs “parlor games” for generals and barons.
Bionic Boy is finally invited to the Palace by Imelda Marcos to meet the President. They are so impressed with his powers that they adopt him and make him an official Marcos family member. All goes well until Bionic Boy uses his powers to predict the downfall of the Marcos regime. This news is of course unwelcome and he is cast out of the family.
Fade to New York City. Bionic Boy begins a new life with a new name, Efren X, with his powers in question, now obsessed with working on his mysterious “science experiments.” Imelda Marcos eventually ends up in New York, being tried for her part in the sins of her husband. Perhaps she believes him now about his power of predictions, but Efren is not interested; still, he cannot help but find himself drawn to Imelda’s plight. He finds himself on the steps of the Federal Building while she is hustled in for the trial:
Efren jostles for space. Suddenly he finds himself standing face to face with her. She looks straight at him. Straight in his eyes, her expression unchanging. Then she is swept up by journalists and guards and disappears in the Federal Court House. Efren catches a glimpse of the hem of her absurd gown. It has gathered some of the spring mud. The crowd soon rushes after them. He finds himself alone on the steps. Litter flies about him in small, tattered cyclones.
He walks home, leaving Imelda to her fate. The reader is left to imagine the reasoning of Efren X and his abandonment of Imelda Marcos. The reader puts his or herself in his shoes—what would you have done? What was there to be done? I would have gone home too.
In contrast, Gamalinda’s story “Elvis in Manila” is a more apparent struggle with identity. Eddie Valdez is about to do a final performance as “Elvis of Manila,” with a cast of fellow celebrity impersonators booked for a “Nostalgia Night” at the Civic Center in Pasadena. Eddie has been living in California for some time with his wife who took a job in the state. Back in Manila, Eddie was a mover and shaker in his Elvis role. He endorsed candidates, performed for President Marcos and was signed by film companies to do several movies. But that was then.
One day he wakes up and shaves his side burns. It is the beginning of the end of Elvis of Manila. He misses being Eddie Valdez, if he ever was Eddie Valdez; like the real Presley, Eddie finds himself trapped in his own persona. His struggle is dealt with in heartrending tenderness by Gamalinda, who perhaps knows firsthand about the loss of identity that comes from moving from one country to another. Read about the final performance of Elvis of Manila and you will be changed too.
The book’s most powerful story for me is his closer, “Yes, Jesus Loves Me.” The narrator of this story is now living in New York City and recounts his upbringing in Manila and the influence of a grandfather he never knew, one Jesus Trinadad. He describes his religious family and how they would sing “Yes, Jesus Loves me” in school, but the real Jesus in his life was his grandfather. The grandson reconstructs a life he never knew through the books he inherited from his grandfather and, in turn, is influenced by these tomes and their ideas:
Judging by the books he read, I like to think he felt the same way I do about being catholic. He must have chafed under its stifling narrow-mindedness and anachronism, yet remained curious if not enthralled by its rituals. In practice, he chose deistic supernaturalism and agnostic realism, combining the beliefs of Kierkegaard and Herbert Spencer into one profound, and profoundly simplified, personal philosophy: that God, the Unknowable, leaves the world alone, but may occasionally disrupt the laws of nature to perform a miracle.
A curiosity about the afterlife leads Jesus to make a pact with two friends, that whoever among them dies first would be bound by honor to come back and share the experience with the others. One of the friends dies not long after but fails to return with a sign. Jesus is the next to die, losing his life at a young age in a tragic elevator accident. He fails to appear to the surviving friend, who eventually loses his life to Communist guerillas.
Jesus Trinadad’s widow is left to a life of “unquestioned faith.” The grandson grows up on stories of his grandfather, “bearing these fragments of histories.” In turning over aspects of a man he never knew, the narrator finds himself formed in the absence of his long dead grandfather:
Sometimes I think my life picks up where my grandfather left off—a quest for signs and meaning whose family is alleviated only by the pleasure of storytelling. I keep looking at the heavens, a universe of eternal silence. Despite my weakening resolve, I keep hoping for something to be disrupted. Call it what you will—a hitch, a miracle, a snag in the works.
After reading each of Gamalinda’s stories, I couldn’t wait to see what would come next. He is an artist with imagination who did not disappoint me in this wonderful collection of episodes. And best of all, I didn’t have to wait in inclement weather at a bus stop to be introduced to a new world. I’ll be keeping Eric Gamalinda’s name in mind for whatever else he may send our way.