An embarrassing number of unfinished books litter my first, few, post-college years, so at some point I started enforcing the rule, “If you start it, you will finish it”. After two chapters of Alexander Yates’s Moondogs, I had some concern about regretting this bit of discipline. The novel’s blurb implied a “high-octane” thriller that marches “with blistering speed” “toward a stunning conclusion”, and by the time I read the sentence, “She had one of those rare faces that looked much prettier up close than it did from far away, and when she got playful like this he found it downright irresistible,” I was dreading the blandly attractive, talented, boring, stock characters that have populated every suspense novel I’ve ever abandoned.
Fortunately, Moondogs only thinks it’s a quirky, action, suspense thriller, and it is mistaken. True, the book’s many characters are all connected by the abduction of American businessman, Howard Bridgewater, but for the first two-thirds of the novel Howard and his kidnappers are the only ones aware of this. The novel presents its protagonists with well-worn roles to fill, but thankfully, they are often too petty, dishonest, incompetent, corrupt, or unwilling to play them.
Benicio, Howard’s estranged son, comes to Manila in an attempt at reconciliation, but embarks on a grudge fueled diving trip with some of his father’s friends when Howard seemingly abandons him. Monique, a middle-aged, American embassy employee trying unsuccessfully to reconnect with her childhood in the Philippines, stays in Manila, hoping to enjoy an affair, instead of going on a vacation with her deteriorating family. Ignacio, Howard’s meth-addicted kidnapper, inspired by news stories and Ocampo Justice, action films, banally brutalizes his captive while trying to sell him to terrorists with the aid of his rooster sidekick. National hero Reynato Ocampo, inspiration for the Ocampo Justice movies and Monique’s lover, is more interested in recruiting a new member to his magical, Gaimanesque Task Force Ka-Pow than finding Howard.
From the believable Benicio and Monique to the cartoonish Ignacio and Reynato, Yates’s characters are all (sometimes oddly) alive. Dialogue is strong through the book, and the action is crisp and clear.
There are weaknesses. The author’s knowledge of the Philippines and Filipino society is obvious, but clear as his descriptions may be, I never felt fully transported to another culture. Also, there is clearly intentional but baffling tense shifting between chapters. Lastly, while entertaining, the magical elements and Kelog, the villainous, rooster henchman, in the end, seem sometimes out of place and unnecessary.
Despite these flaws, Moondogs does a respectable job fusing the magical realism in an exotic local of books like Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Wizard of the Crow with the weirdness, sex, and violence of mid-to-late 90’s Vertigo Comics. For the right audience, Alexander Yates has written an excellent first novel.