(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In his second novel, The Disinherited, celebrated playwright Han Ong gives readers a tour of Philippine society through the eyes of a Filipino American writer, Roger Caracera. The view is harsh, frequently disgusting, sometimes plaintive, and overridden by a theme: that during its misconceived, chauvinistic stewardship, the United States impressed upon the Philippines a mawkish, tawdry, self-defeating image of itself. In fact, it is the American-raised Caracera (Spanish for “wax face”) who symbolizes this U.S.-Philippines relationship in his quixotic attempts to work justice by distributing money to causes he deems worthwhile.

Caracera comes from a family that is broken in multiple ways. His mother, originally a social worker to the Philippines, grew increasingly insane during his childhood years, so his father abandoned her and took Roger and his elder siblings, Roberto and Socorro, to live in the United States. Such a move reflects a pervasive subtheme in the novel: Rich or poor, Filipinos want to live in America because they believe it holds the solution to their problems. In the case of Roger's father, Jesus, the problem was the failing fortunes of the large, wealthy Caracera family, which once owned the Philippines’ largest sugar company. A combination of bad business decisions by Roger's grandfather and maladroit political maneuvering by Jesus during the Marcos regime decreased the fortune and lowered the family's social status.

In the Philippines of 2000, when the novel opens, the Caracera name still carries panache, however, so that when Roger, Socorro, and Roberto return to Manila with their father's body to bury him in his homeland, the story attracts media attention. Orchestrating the funeral is Roger's aunt Irene Caracera, the imperious family matriarch who will do anything to preserve the Caracera reputation. The tawdry display of wealth at the funeral and what he takes as insincere expressions of grief for his father disgust Roger.

In fact, nearly everything about the Philippines reawakens in him the dormant rebelliousness of his teenage years, when he did all he could to reject his father. A philanderer and playboy, Jesus nonetheless dominated his children and raised them in accordance with Catholicism and moneymaking. With Roberto, now a successful businessman, and Socorro, a pediatrician, Jesus succeeded, but Roger dissipated his youth and then tried to become a playwright. Now, at forty-four, he is an unmarried adjunct professor of creative writing at Columbia University and an exhausted, empty soul. A brief reunion at Jesus's deathbed does little more than throw Roger into a tizzy of resentment, lies, and confusion. He transfers these attitudes to the Philippines in general. Its Catholicism repels him; he scoffs at the country as the “land of Jesus, Inc.” He finds his family, and all of the Manila elite, to be otiose, vapid, meretricious mimics of Western attitudes.

Jesus's attempts to control his younger son do not end with his death. To the surprise, dismay, and jealousy of the entire family, his will leaves the bulk of his remaining fortune, half a million dollars, to Roger. Here Ong's tales turns sinister, comic, and impressively thrilling all at the same time. The family, naturally, wants to know what Roger will do with the money, which really means that they want him to spend it on them, or at least in the style to which they are accustomed. Roger vows to do otherwise. He decides to give it away to the poor. Because of that, he comes into direct conflict with Aunt Irene. A battle of wills ensues.

Despite Irene's machinations to stop him, and with Manila's press looking over his shoulder, Roger sets off on a series of charity missions, all of which expose his deep incomprehension of his native land, for he sees Filipinos, both the wealthy and the vast numbers of destitute, only through the filter of his American-trained mind. For example, he tries to be noble and redeem the family honor by giving some of the inheritance to the sugar workers whom his forebears had dreadfully exploited in the course of accumulating the Caracera fortune. With the help of an old schoolmate, now a lawyer, Benjamin Goyanos, he has the family chauffeur drive him and a bag of cash into the boondocks and to the...

(The entire section is 1739 words.)