Reviewed by April Line
At first, I was nervous to read David Brubaker’s Liberace’s Filipino Cousin published by Things Asian Press (May 2016). I was nervous because of my own preconceptions: Brubaker is a white man of a particular age. I expected his writing to reflect a kind of adamancy, to be at least a little pedantic. The second essay is called “Dancing with the Tampon Queen,” for heaven’s sake.
But it is not what I thought.
The Tampon Queen is proud of her title: it is not Brubaker’s nickname for her, but a moniker of professional achievement, success. And even more, it symbolizes the one thing Brubaker professes uneasy thoughts over: the exploitation of people living in poverty.
Brubaker performs a magic trick of the essayist: even when it’s possible to infer his views, he does not project these onto the stories he tells or the people in them.
His affectionate descriptions of mundane things like the prevalence of mango shakes and Coke Light, and fraught and difficult observations of a human trafficker named Tony, are consistently non-judgmental and game.
What I found to be most delightful in this collection is Brubaker’s almost militant hesitance to define anyone else in relationship to himself. His people have names, and it’s not always exactly apparent that the people he’s with are his family, or that they’re not. Marilyn is never, “my wife.” Kristen is never, “my daughter-in-law.” Even two-year-old Roman calls him Dave. Roman is his grandson. Every character is whole, themselves, authentic (whatever their country of origin, character, or gender reveal).
Whatever Brubaker sees, he does not judge. His style gives the reader freedom to draw her own conclusions, to simply experience the wild and wonderful Filipino culture through Brubaker’s sometimes alarmingly neutral eyes.
His own quirky adherence to routine belies his social and intellectual flexibility, and even though I can now describe thirty-eight things that Brubaker does in the Philippines, I don’t have a clear sense of what he believes. Even when it seems he is about to take a position, he stops short, takes the left turn, and describes what he sees there with empathy, patience, and curiosity.
My favorite characters are Marilyn and Adriane. Marilyn is opinionated and smart. She likes pizza and is mostly vegetarian. She’s spiritually skeptical. Adriane is tattooed and artistic and unapologetic and a serious smoker who prefers hard packs. She also buys a lot of fruit and is calm and flexible. But all the women in the collection are carefully rendered.
Even better, the essays extol women’s intellects, strength, generosity, wealth, power, and savvy. Brubaker’s observations about all the women he encounters and describes are careful, fair-minded, and rarely even mention their bodies, and when present, physical details are tasteful, then followed by three or four non-physical characteristics.
Of course, all of these things are also true about the men he describes. But careful descriptions of men are not unusual or surprising. What is surprising is Brubaker’s effort to track down something called the Lucky Buggers Club, which is a possibly mythical group of active, but kept, men; often expats, always unemployed as their spouses work in high-powered, important, handsomely compensated jobs. Even when looking into something so potentially charged, Brubaker’s affect is one of openness—a sincere yearning to know.
My sole criticisms of this book are a couple of odd book design choices. The use of the font Comic Sans in the chapter heads, footers, and on the book’s spine is puzzling. Too, I’m not sure I understand why all of the pages are glossy, other than that Things Asian Press purports to publish travel books. I would’ve liked some matte finish text rich pages, I think.
Design issues notwithstanding, Liberace’s Filipino Cousin is worth your time. Not just because of Brubaker’s kind, thoughtful depictions of all different kinds of humans and elements of Filipino culture, but also because it’s a nice, comfortable read. It feels like a long talk with an interesting person.
It is good to be reminded, even in this cultural moment where everyone seems like a caricature of their class, politics, and most recent vote, that it’s still a really solid policy to live and let live, that there are many moments best lived with suspended preconceptions.