Letters to Montgomery Clift by Noel Alumit – review

Rating: 9/10 ★★★★★★★★★☆ 

Title: Letters to Montgomery Clift
Author: Noel Alumit
Genre: Literary Fiction
URL: Amazon.com
Price: US$12.55
Warnings: Explicit m/m sex, violence.
Summary [from publisher]: “Praying is not enough–better put it in writing!’ Bong Bong Luwad is living with his selfish Auntie Yuna in L.A., far from his Philippine village, the Marcos regime, and his mother who helped him escape. Bong Bong spends his nights watching old movies on TV, while Auntie Yuna writes pleading letters to saints and dead relatives. One night on the late-late movie, Bong Bong finds his own saint: Montgomery Clift, playing a soldier who helps a lost boy find his mother. Can Monty do the same for him? He gets out a pencil and paper and thus begins a series of extraordinary events that carry him from boyhood to adolescence, through sexual awakening, madness, and finally back to a place where he can begin his life again. Letters to Montgomery Clift is a novel of endurance and hope. It is a tale of growing up, coming out, and going home.

My Review:

december 4, 1976

dear mr. montgomery clift,
i want one thing only. please bring my mama back to me. safe. with no more bruises.
i will wait one week. if nothing bad happens then i know it is ok to write you.
bong bong luwad

With that one child-like letter, author Noel Alumit sets a haunting tone that carries on throughout his remarkable debut novel, Letters to Montgomery Clift. But not only does that letter mark the beginning of the story, it is also the start of a long and sometime intimate relationship that young Bong Bong Luwad develops with Mr. Montgomery Clift, the dead, sexually confused actor who starred in such films as From Here to Eternity and The Search. But don’t let this tone fool you.  Letters to Montgomery Clift is not a downer of a book.  It is at its heart a story about love, about growing up and coming out, about enduring and overcoming, and, most of all, about going home.

We learn that Bong Bong’s story starts before he discovers the cinema persona of Mr. Clift and, in fact, before he ever comes to America.  Born in the Philippines during that country’s most repressive regimes, Bong Bong is witness to the thugs of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos beating his mother and father, both democratic activists, and carting his father away to some unknown location.  His mother, fearing for her boy, manages to smuggle Bong Bong out of the Philippines, sending him to live with his auntie in the United States of America and vowing that she and her husband will join him there soon.  It is a promise Bong Bong holds onto dearly as the first people in his family begin to “disappear.”

In Los Angeles, Bong Bong lives with his Auntie Yuna, an abusive, alcoholic woman whose life has not gone as she thought it would.  Though life withher is fairly toxic, Bong Bong is still with family and he knows deep down that it won’t be long before his Mama and Papa come for him.  But when time passes and life with Yuna becomes more and more unstable, Bong Bong begins to wonder just when his parents will fulfill their promise.

One night, the devoutly Catholic Yuna tell young Bong Bong about why she prays, how she prays. It’s better, she says, to write them down, otherwise the prayers just go from your head into thin air. And it is even better to send the prayers to dead relatives because, Dead relatives already know you and you know them. People will do things for people they know. God knows everyone and treats everyone the same. I want to ask a favor from someone who will give better treatment.

Not knowing any of his relatives, Bong Bong doesn’t know to whom he should direct his prayers.  Then one night, while watching The Search on television, he is struck by the kindhearted soldier, played by Mr. Clift, who cares for a young boy until his mother returns. Bong Bong decides that if Mr. Clift helped that young boy, surely he would so the same for him.  Mr. Clift becomes his patron saint, and Bong Bong begins writing prayers to him, a habit that will continue for years and become very nearly his only means of emotional support.

Auntie Yuna, Bong Bong discovers, is also somewhat of a busy-body, constantly keeping an eye on the rather attractive man next door and his floozy (to her anyway) girlfriend.  While she wishes the man’s attentions were being paid to her, Yuna tells Bong Bong that the man is evil. Through the wall, Bong Bong hears  the sounds that Mr. Evil and his girlfriend make at night and becomes fascinated with the man, spying on him at one point because he wants to see what evil looks like.  Mr. Clift…evil is real good looking. Soon, though, Bong Bong, Mr. Evil and his girlfriend become friends, and Bong Bong finds a support sorely lacking in his life.  That is until Mr. Evil gets a job that transfers him away, and yet two more people disappear from Bong Bong’s life.  When Auntie Yuna vanishes, too, on her way to a liquor store, Bong Bong is left alone to fend for himself until showing up on Social Services’ radar.

Cut off from all family, absent parents whose love he is beginning to doubt, Bong Bong is shuffled from bad foster home to bad foster home.  Ultimately, he lands with an affluent Filipino-American family and though the situation seems ideal, the hole in Bong Bong (now rechristened Bob) only widens, and slowly his need for Mr. Clift becomes desperate, all-consuming, obsessive-compulsive.  As he grows into adulthood he becomes as self destructive as Mr. Clift had been, and when he discovers that his new family has skeletons of their own in their closet, everything comes to a boil. His life—and sanity—starts spiraling out of control. Where does Bong Bong go from here?  Can Mr. Clift save him the way he did that little boy in the movie? And whatever became of his parents who never, ever seemed to want to come to him.

Alumit packs a lot into this novel—the political climate of the Philippines, the cultural significance of religion in Filipino families, self abuse, mental illness, teen pregnancy, burgeoning awareness of sexuality, but never once does it feel crowded or overwrought.  More importantly, it never gets in the way of Bong Bong’s story.  Each of these things is simply an aspect of his life, the multitude of things that swirl about him.  The focus remains solely on our protagonist.  Part of this is due to Alumit’s expert use of clean, simple language.  Bong Bong’s voice does indeed “change” as he gets older, but the author always keeps the prose sharply focused and to the point, and the letters to Mr. Clift which start each chapter give a cohesive feel even as the character’s narrative voice grows up.

Alumit also has an expert eye for real-life dialog and the little details that make up lives. The result is that the setting and the characters are full without feeling overworked.  And we are treated to a protagonist who is eminently appealing and someone you want to root for.  You hurt for him when things are bad and brighten when something good comes his way. But this also extends to even the less immediately likable characters such as Auntie Yuna who, despite her problems, the reader is never made to despise her.  In fact, you develop an empathy for this broken woman, and though it is not easy, you can even come to forgive her a little for her foibles.

And when it comes to Bong Bong’s parents, by their absence they become as strong a character as any other in the novel, their spirit omnipresent.  It’s remarkable that characters who appear so briefly in the novel seem to grow as the story does, and your feelings toward them shift as does Bong Bong’s.  One moment you love them and the next, you hate them for leaving their son alone.

Perhaps the strongest relationship in the book is the relationship between Bong Bong and Mr. Clift.  For an illusory relationship, it is a strong and appealing one.  Bong Bong finds in him a saint, a friend, a mentor, a lover, a father and a faulty role model.  Clift becomes the mirror for Bong Bong, the sole source of support, and a measure of comfort.  And then he becomes a crutch that Bong Bong simply can’t let go of, because he cannot deal with someone else in his life diasppearing.

Something wonderful about this book is that Bong Bong—unlike Mr. Clift—never seems conflicted about his sexuality.  Certainly, he has issues around it, but as for angst over being gay, Bong Bong is remarkably free of that, a fact I greatly appreciated.  In a very real sense, this is a coming of age story, but it is not as so many novels people with gay characters, a sexual coming of age.

Alumit dedicates his book “To those who have Disappeared,” and loss—loss of family, loss of political freedoms, loss of human contact—is the driving theme of the novel and it is what defines Bong Bong Luwad, at the very least, in his own mind.  Despite this and to Alumit’s immense credit, although the novel can be an emotional roller coaster, the loss is balanced with an optimism which at times seems to defy logic, almost crossing into faith.  As bad as things get for Bong Bong, there is still that faint glimmer of hope burning in him that refuses to be snuffed out, a hope that pushes him to move forward and yet drives him to the brink of insanity.

By books’ end, Alumit has taken us on a terribly affecting emotional journey of sorrow and loss and joy and resignation, yet the hope pervading the novel resonates deeply, ultimately creating a remarkably uplifting story of love—for one’s family and  for one’s self—of growth and of survival and new beginnings.

It is a novel for which I have great fondness and respect and I cannot recommend it strongly enough.