In Lysley Tenorio’s debut novel, a mother and son duo wrestle for social and economic mobility. They have very limited resources, a direct consequence for being undocumented immigrants. As the novel opens, the male protagonist, Excel, is fresh out of high school, itching to escape a life of invisibility imposed upon him since birth by his mother, Maxima. They breathe a life of extreme caution and secrecy, lest Immigration officials discover they’re undocumented, and deport them back to the Philippines. For a while Excel is able to leave home, thanks to a girlfriend inclined to resettle in a desert commune in southern California, a setting far removed from the comforts of city life in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Soon, Maxima prepares for a life without her son, but the sadness of having an empty nest hardly fazes her. She’s too busy hustling for a living. Her main sources of income are dating websites, like Good Catholic Filipinas, where she lures middle-aged white men to fall in love with her. She preys on their loneliness and fantasies of marrying the “perfect Asian wife.” It’s a devious game because the main fulcrum of Maxima’s scams are the stories she tells her admirers. Online, she pretends she lives in a shabby or poverty stricken area in the Philippines, and not in California. She knows her potential suitors are attracted to helpless, Asian women in dire straits. As soon as love enters the picture, Maxima’s script takes a dark, strategic turn: she raises the stakes of her fictive identity, and feigns a medical condition, with details that force her online suitors to be charitable, and wire monetary gifts. Maxima is unbelievably successful in her game that, towards the end of the novel, even her son Excel becomes an indelible partner in crime.
After less than a year of living in southern California, Excel returns home to assess his life, and ask for his mother’s help, because he caused a fire in the desert commune. He must pay the cost of damages, which is ten-thousand dollars. Soon, Excel is forced to participate in his mother's dating game. Together, Maxima and Excel are able to raise much more than they wanted to raise, thanks to a generous man who has fallen madly in love with Maxima. In fact, they earn enough for Maxima to consider returning to the Philippines, perhaps for good, in order to take care of her ailing sister, Queenie, because she’s confident that Excel can make it on his own. Here, Tenorio highlights the uncompromising but ironic optimism of undocumented immigrants; to them, the dank and murky tunnels of deperation are the building blocks of character and strength, bridges to a future of possibilities, whether that journey is defined by fraudulence or scamming lonely people out of their wits and money. The fundamental goal is, first and foremost, survival.
In many ways, the novel offers an empathetic depiction of undocumentd immigrants specific to the Filipino-American community, a group that does not necessarily receive as much attention as other Asian American communities. Here, Tenorio creates a portrait of their experience from the perspective of an insider, textured with wit and humor that draws a sardonic chuckle to the kind of alienation and pessimism the undocumented person breathes, in daily life. This novel is highly recommended to readers of immigrant fiction who have an affinity for curiosity, respect, and the variety of stories and experiences the genre is able to incorporate and absorb with unflinching and unapologetic inclusivity.