The BookBrowse Review

Published June 9, 2021

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Monkey Boy
Monkey Boy
by Francisco Goldman

Hardcover (4 May 2021), 336 pages.
Publisher: Grove Press
ISBN-13: 9780802157676
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Francisco Goldman's first novel since his acclaimed, nationally bestselling Say Her Name (winner of the Prix Femina étranger), Monkey Boy is a sweeping story about the impact of divided identity - whether Jewish/Catholic, white/brown, native/expat - and one misfit's quest to heal his damaged past and find love.

Our narrator, Francisco Goldberg, an American writer, has been living in Mexico when, because of a threat provoked by his journalism, he flees to New York City, hoping to start afresh. His last relationship ended devastatingly five years before, and he may now finally be on the cusp of a new love with a young Mexican woman he meets in Brooklyn. But Francisco is soon beckoned back to his childhood home outside Boston by a high school girlfriend who witnessed his youthful humiliations, and to visit his Guatemalan mother, Yolanda, whose intermittent lucidity unearths forgotten pockets of the past. On this five-day trip, the specter of Frank's recently deceased father, Bert, an immigrant from Ukraine – pathologically abusive, yet also at times infuriatingly endearing ― as well as the dramatic Guatemalan woman who helped raise him, and the high school bullies who called him "monkey boy," all loom.

Told in an intimate, irresistibly funny, and passionate voice, this extraordinary portrait of family and growing up "halfie," unearths the hidden cruelties in a predominantly white, working-class Boston suburb where Francisco came of age, and explores the pressures of living between worlds all his life. Monkey Boy is a new masterpiece of fiction from one of the most important American voices in the last forty years.

Excerpt
Monkey Boy

All my life, I've been answering some version of the inevitable question: But aren't you Jewish? (Weren't you just introduced to me as Frank Goldberg? Then what do you mean that you were baptized in that church?) I'm half-Jewish, I've always answered. Usually adding: My mother is Catholic. (I'm half-Jewish and half-Catholic I'm sure I used to say as a boy.) Those questions always felt threatening to me; to some degree, they still do. When I answered like I did, did people think I was saying that I was or wasn't Jewish? That's what I'm thinking about, sitting here in this sleek hipster pub that I stopped into after saying goodbye to María and Rebeca at the laundromat and walking around the neighborhood a bit, fuming about Father Blackett, Lexi's arrowhead in my pocket.

When I was a kid, I never would have dared to say out loud: I want to be just one thing, like a normal person is, though I thought it all the time. Having a mother from Guatemala is weird enough, but at least she's Catholic. I'd rather be Catholic because that's more normal. I did know there was some sort of rabbinical law that if the mother isn't Jewish then her children aren't either, but it wasn't a law I ever saw enforced in any way, or that anyone else seemed to know or care about. As a child I did ask my mother to let me go to Sunday School at St. Joe's. But Bert said, Yoli, they'll slaughter him. He can't defend himself against one Gary Sacco, what's going to happen when every goddamned kid is Gary Sacco? Instead, I was put into after-school Hebrew classes. I don't know how Bert didn't foresee what a disaster that was going to be. When two weeks later I just stopped going, not a mote of dust was stirred by query or protest from any quarter.

I want to be nothing. Why can't I just be nothing? What if I'd said that. But what can a fourteen-year-old really know about being nothing?

Nada us our nada as we nada our nadas. But there's no Nada IPA on the menu, so I tentatively order the Spaceman IPA. The waitress, tall and trim in all black, reassures me that I've made a good choice. I order a grilled fontina and guanciale sandwich, too. She brings the beer, and I silently toast and drink to nada.

Up to fifth grade, Mamita always took us back to Guatemala City for the summers, and even though they were supposed to be our vacation months, we were always put in schools. For a few of those summers I was enrolled in the Colegio Ann Hunt. Ann Hunt was an expat from Alabama, and her husband, Scobie, owned travel agencies and tourist hotels. It was at the Colegio Ann Hunt that I encountered for the first time, in the school library, the phenomena of strictly classifying writers by ethnicity and race. The shelves labeled "American" held books by writers from Alcott to Wolfe. The bottom shelves, inches above the floor, of two adjoining bookcases were labeled "Negro," Baldwin to Wright, and "Jewish," Bellow to Wouk, the lower parts of those book spines scuzzy with the dust of broom sweepings. Latino/Latina, or Hispanic, or however Ann Hunt might have labeled it, weren't on her map yet, and neither were Asian, Native American, etcetera. But now I know that Ann Hunt was a pioneer of the American multicultural book business, however inadvertently. She should have gotten a medal.

"In a hyper capitalist society like this one, this commodification of ethnicity and race is both inevitable and good business, much better than just dispersing these writers like multi-colored sprinkles into our more established commercial batters, but you do have to be clear about what you're selling. Somebody buying a novel in our coveted Guatemalan- American niche doesn't want to be surprised to find a bunch of Jews and half-Jews in there." I didn't foresee, when I published my first short stories, how easy I could have made things for myself by publishing under my mother's maiden name, Montejo, as other writers in situations the same as mine have done. Then I thought that as I'd already published under Goldberg, altering it would be shameful, as if admitting it bothered me to be thought of as only Jewish. I was jealous of Jewish writers and half Jews whose last names didn't sound Jewish, all those Millers and Bakers, Mailer, Salinger, and Proust. Or writers who simply changed their name and paid no price in shame or ridicule, James Horowitz to James Salter, who said he hadn't wanted to be typecast as "another Jewish writer from New York." Could it really be possible that Frank Gehry would have had fewer important architectural commissions if he'd kept his name, Frank Goldberg?

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Monkey Boy © 2021 by Francisco Goldman. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

In this fervent work of autobiographical fiction, Francisco Goldman reflects on his working-class Boston upbringing and the complicated relationships of his formative years.

Print Article Publisher's View   

Francisco Goldman's Monkey Boy exists in the liminal space between memoir and fiction. Like Goldman himself, son of a Jewish immigrant father from Ukraine and a Catholic immigrant mother from Guatemala, his writing defies easy categorization, landing in the zone of autobiographical fiction. "I made things up in order to be able to tell the truth," Goldman told the Paris Review's Lila Byok. "...Once you claim that you are writing a narrative purely from memory you are already in the realm of fiction."

The book's semi-eponymous narrator is Francisco Goldberg — Frankie — a 49-year-old journalist-cum-novelist; its title comes from the name given to him by childhood bullies. Frankie has recently returned to New York City from Mexico City, where he was living, because of death threats he received following publication of his book about the murder of a Guatemalan bishop, a murder with links to the highest echelons of the country's government. On its face, Monkey Boy is the story of a five-day trip to Boston; inwardly, it is a far-ranging quest to come to terms with childhood, family history and the multifaceted inheritance of violence that shaped the narrator's life.

The story opens as Frankie prepares for a train trip to see his mother, whom he calls Mamita, in a nursing home in the suburbs of Boston, the landscape of his childhood. He is at a turning point in his life. His novel about José Martí, Cuban poet and revolutionary, is about to be published, and he is hoping that after several romantic failures, a tentative new relationship will provide the fulfillment that has so far eluded him.

Mamita has begun a gradual descent into dementia, and Frankie wants to connect with her while she is still lucid. She is reluctant because she's afraid her confidences will end up in a novel. When Frankie's first book was published, she framed the paragraph from the copyright page that says, "This is a work of fiction," and hung it on the wall in her front hall. He also plans to connect with some of the influential women in his life: a high school sweetheart, his Guatemalan au pair, and his sister, with whom he has a troubled relationship. He is looking for a way into a past that has left him feeling caught between worlds, unconnected and invisible. He hopes that by understanding his past, he will be able to look toward a new future.

Goldman weaves a complex braid of the present, memory and gritty political commentary. The prose drifts in short vignettes between stream of consciousness descriptions of the scenery beyond the train window — "a CasparDavidFriedrich graveyard with crooked gravestones, bare, black, twisted trees" — journeys through Goldberg's childhood — "I remember no part of my life more vividly than my fear of my father" — and back through the histories that shaped his parents' lives as immigrants in an unfamiliar and sometimes hostile country. With understated, razor-sharp language, Frankie recalls a morning walk with his father to a Jewish bakery:

Ricky Rossi from my sixth-grade class, sneering baby face in a bomber hat with hanging earflaps. Pitching arm cocked as if about to hurl another [snowball] as he lightly skipped backward on the snow-covered sidewalk, he shouted, Jew! … A Norman Rockwell painting, quaint New England town square in prettily falling snow, rascally boys being boys.

Later, he recalls a moment of racial animosity between his mother and a traffic cop:

Oh yeah, Yolanda? So where's ya Chiquita Banana hat? … That was one historically literate cop, though, to make that connection between my mother's country and the originally Boston-based fruit company that gave birth to Chiquita and helped bring years of military dictatorship and slaughter to her country.

During his early life, Goldberg/Goldman bounced between Boston and Guatemala City. His experiences in Guatemala instilled in him a strong sense of social justice and led to a 10-year career covering the Guatemalan Civil War (see Beyond the Book) and later, the child abductions of Argentina's Dirty War.

In his writing, Goldman exposes the underbelly of a complex web of brutality, from intimate family violence to the racism and bullying of a working-class Boston suburb, to the global violence of colonial oppression. Yet, as searing and unflinching as the novel is, it is also a work of tenderness and compassion. We fall in love with the characters, as flawed as they are, because Goldman paints them with a shining and necessary humanity. At a time when xenophobia and racial and ethnic violence are on the rise, Monkey Boy offers both a glimmer of hope for the future and a stunning read.

Reviewed by Naomi Benaron

Washington Post
[B]y taking us along with him, drawing us so deftly into moments of intimacy and worldliness, brutality and beauty, the author effectively ceases to be an outsider. In Monkey Boy he has crafted his own E pluribus unum, with room enough for stories lived, written or read — and, of course, for the two Franciscos, Goldberg and Goldman.

Publishers Weekly
[C]aptivating...Goldman's direct, intimate writing alone is worth the price of admission.

Library Journal
Fusing elements of creative nonfiction with autoethnography, Francisco Goldman creates the speculative ghost of a parallel life in Francisco Goldberg. Fans of Goldman's bibliography will find much to delight in here.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
[Goldman's] immersive, restless narrative style expertly plays the rhythms of thought and remembrance, weaving in his past and current romances, his investigation of and published work on Guatemalan terror, ultimately the quest for a whole made of so many halves: half Jewish, half Catholic, half American, half Guatemalan, half White, half Latino...The warmth and humanity of Goldman's storytelling are impossible to resist.

Booklist (starred review)
Although steeped in trauma and loneliness, prejudice and brutality, secrets and lies, Goldman’s ravishing, multidirectional novel is also iridescent with tenderness, comedic absurdity, sensual infatuation, reclaimed love, the life-sustaining desire to ‘remember every single second,’ and the redemption of getting every element just right.

Author Blurb Susan Choi, National Book Award winning author of Trust Exercise
Francisco Goldman...crafter of the tenderest dirtiest love scenes!?the wisest and spookiest children!?the fathers whose monstrosity breaks our hearts with compassion for them?who else can do all this? Francisco Goldman is uncategorizable, as is this book which made me grow a second heart just to contain all its fierce tenderness. Goldman has been my literary hero from his first entrancing Long Night of White Chickens to this latest take-no-prisoners Monkey Boy. He is a true original, that rarest of writers, the kind we cannot live without.

Author Blurb Valeria Luiselli
From the painful intimate violence in a suburban New England home, to racial cruelty among high school teenagers, to the US government's political and military interventionism in Latin America, Goldman's sweeping gaze runs through multiple circuits of America's violence, showing us how deeply connected they in fact are. With the exact balance of outrage and hope, Monkey Boy takes us on an eye-opening journey, full of tenderness and horror, through the often-ignored layers of this country's history. A powerful, necessary book.

Author Blurb Rivka Galchen
Francisco Goldman, one of our most brilliant political writers, is also, miraculously, a Chekhov of the heart. This novel is wild, funny, and wrenching, as well as a profound act of retrieval and transformation.

Author Blurb Colm Tóibín, author of Brooklyn and Nora Webster
Monkey Boy is written with tenderness and emotional precision. It tells what it means to be an American, to have an identity that is nourished by many sources, including ones that are mysterious and shrouded in secrecy. It is a story of two cities?Boston and Guatemala?and an account of a man's relationship with his mother, who is evoked here in sharp and loving detail. It is a book about how we piece the past together. Goldman bridges the gap between imagination and memory with stunning lyricism and unsparing clarity.

Print Article Publisher's View  

The Guatemalan Civil War

Crosses bearing the names of victims of the Guatemalan Civil WarThe narrator of Francisco Goldman's autobiographical novel Monkey Boy, like Goldman himself, was a journalist who reported on the Guatemalan Civil War. The brutal war began in 1960 and lasted a total of 36 years. Over 200,000 were killed or "disappeared," more than 600 villages were attacked or completely destroyed by the army and 150 million people were displaced. Approximately 83 percent of the victims were Indigenous Maya, and 93 percent of human rights violations were carried out by the army and its paramilitary groups. Repercussions from the war still reverberate through the country today, and reconciliation remains elusive.

Background

The seeds of the civil war found fertile ground following the 1954 military coup that toppled President Jacobo Arbenz, a progressive, democratically elected leader, and installed a military dictator, Colonel Castillo Armas. The United Fruit Company, which extracted huge profits from Guatemala from banana exports, had become alarmed by Arbenz's reforms that expropriated idle land and gave it to poor rural farmers. President Eisenhower had deep connections to United Fruit. The director of the CIA had served on their board of trustees, and Eisenhower's personal secretary was married to the company's chief PR officer. In the midst of the Cold War, he was also concerned about the spread of communism. The US-backed coup was orchestrated by the CIA. Once in power, Armas canceled the agrarian reforms, took away voting rights from illiterate Guatemalans, and implemented a series of repressive policies that resulted in the imprisonment of thousands of people.

The Civil War

The civil war began when left-wing guerillas, supported by Indigenous Guatemalans demanding social and economic justice, clashed with the state's military. The government responded with brutal force. According to a PBS Frontline report, "By March 1971, there had been more than 700 political killings. The victims included labor leaders, students and politicians." Violence continued to escalate in the '70s and '80s. According to Frontline, during this time, "At least 50,000 people died in the violence, and 200,000 Guatemalans fled to neighboring countries. Hundreds of thousands more were internally displaced because of systematic repression by the military."

The worst atrocities occurred during the 1980s, particularly under General Efrain Rios Montt, who seized power in another military coup in 1982. During that time, the government initiated a policy "aimed at ending insurgent guerrilla warfare by destroying the civilian base in which they hid." The army and its state-sponsored death squads swept through the country with a "scorched earth" policy, razing Indigenous villages, poisoning crops and water supplies, and murdering the inhabitants, burying them in mass unmarked graves. Anyone suspected of collaboration with the rebels was arrested or kidnapped. Some ended up in secret prisons where they were raped, tortured and murdered.

Fearing the spread of communism from Cuba, the US provided monetary and tactical support throughout the war, including the training of the most feared and brutal special forces counter-insurgency unit, the Kaibiles. In 1978, President Carter barred all sales of military equipment to Guatemala due to humanitarian concerns, but in 1983, President Reagan lifted the embargo, helping fuel the bloodiest years of the conflict.

Following the awarding of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize to Rigoberta Menchu, a Mayan human rights activist, international pressure against the war intensified. Negotiations began between the government and leftist insurgents in 1994, and in December 1996, a peace agreement was signed between the government and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit, officially ending the civil war. A condition of the UN-sponsored agreement was the establishment of the Commission for Historical Clarification, or CEH, to, "clarify human rights violations related to the thirty-six-year internal conflict… and to foster tolerance and preserve memory of the victims."

Aftermath

The CEH identified over 600 massacres. They concluded that between 1981 and 1983, in four predominantly Mayan regions, the actions of the Guatemalan army rose to the level of genocide.

Justice remains elusive. Thousands of families have yet to discover the fate of their loved ones, and without closure, wounds do not heal. Convictions for atrocities have largely been for minor players, although in 2011, four Kaibiles were sentenced to 6,060 years in prison for participation in the Dos Erres massacre. In 2013, General Efrain Rios Montt was tried and convicted in Guatemalan court for crimes against humanity, but his conviction was quickly overturned. He died in 2018 while awaiting a retrial. With the 2019 election of right-wing politician Alejandro Giammattei, a former doctor and prison director, many fear that further accountability efforts will be stalled.

Shrine dedicated to Bishop Juan Gerardi and victims of the Guatemalan genocide, courtesy of Adam Jones/Flickr

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