Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Latest Noël

On August 10th, 1999, Buford O’Neal Furrow shot a Filipino-American postal worker named Joseph Ileto having just driven from the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles where he shot and injured three pre-teen children, a teen-aged counselor, and a sixty-plus year old receptionist. The attacks, prosecuted as a Hate Crime, made national (and probably international) news and Furrow is now serving two life sentences without possibility of parole in the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, the prison built to replace Alcatraz. Other USP-Marion inmates have included John Gotti, Pete Rose, and Leonard Peltier. For a while, the USP at Marion was one of two Super-max prisons in the US system, similar to Pelican Bay State Prison five miles down the road from where I’m typing this blog. In 2006, the prison at Marion was down-graded to a Medium Security Facility.

Why this interest in a nine-year old hate crime? I just finished reading the second novel of Noël Alumit, Talking to the Moon, which is loosely based on the incident. In the actual event, Joseph “JoJo” Ileto was shot nine times and left to die in a driveway in the San Fernando Valley. When the authorities arrived, Ileto was already dead. Surviving family members included his mother and three siblings. Joseph “Jory” Lalaban, the postal worker gunned down in Alumit’s novel, is an orphan raised in a Roman Catholic orphanage in the Philippines, who leaves the orphanage, gives himself a last name based on the first names of four boys buried in the orphanage’s cemetery, and marries the daughter of the highest grande-dame in the area after impregnating the daughter while serving as a novice priest. Fictional postal worker Jory Lalaban does not die in the driveway, but is taken by ambulance to a Los Angeles hospital where he lingers for months while his wife Belen, second son Emerson, and eventually the second son’s lover Michael all visit.

The title of the book comes from the religion that Jory adopts after leaving Roman Catholicism behind. The Igorot people, an indigenous group of Luzon Island, practiced a religion that included speaking to the moon—especially on the winter solstice when the moon is most powerful. Jory lives among the Igorot, learns the Ibaloi language spoken by his wife, and becomes a healer in the Igorot tradition. Cursed by his mother-in-law, Jory takes his wife to California where their sons, Jun-Jun (Joseph Junior) and Emerson, are born.

It’s easy to say that this is a novel of loss and redemption. Certainly there is much lost in the course of the story. The novel opens in October, 1999, with Jory finding himself looking down the barrel of a gun while delivering mail on his route. He’s shot, taken to the hospital, and the story proceeds in a series of flash-backs told from the point of view of each of the four main characters. While Jory is in a coma in the hospital, we learn of his early life in the orphanage, about the beautiful teen-aged girl who becomes enamored of the young priest-in-training at her parish, of the indomitable Ermaline Dubabang, the girl’s mother who has quite specific ideas about who her daughter will marry and how she will take her place in the highest echelons of Philippine society. Let us acknowledge right away that having a daughter pregnant by a novice priest does not figure in Ermaline’s plans.

We learn too of the death of the first child, Jun-Jun, killed by a hit-and-run driver in a Mercury Comet, and the subsequent estrangement of Belen and Emerson. We also learn how Emerson cannot appreciate his own strength and beauty and because of his own fears, he drives his lover Michael away.

Jory and Emerson talk to the moon. Belen talks to the Virgin Mary. Michael, a flight attendant, talks to his fellow Taiwan Airlines crew members. There’s a lot of talking in this novel—but we note that the talking is rarely conversation. It’s more like prayer, and the underlying question throughout the book is which prayers will be answered.

I learned a lot about the Philippines by reading this book. I recommend it highly and plan on reading Alumit’s first novel, Letters to Montgomery Clift, in which the central character is sent from the Philippines at age 8 to live with his aunt in California. Alumit is certainly a writer to watch. I expect much more from him and look forward to deepening my knowledge of both the Philippines and Noël Alumit. Alumit has his own blog at

Below are the links to should you wish to purchase either of Alumit's novels. (If you do buy a book using this link, Amazon gives me a cut--hint, hint.)

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