What We Areby Peter Nathaniel Malae
“A rollercoaster ride inside the haunted house of American multi cultural sin and shame. Violent and smart and funny. I am excited by this new writer.” —Sherman Alexie
A blazing and authentic new literary voice, Peter Nathaniel Malae—a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award—has written a raw and powerful, bullet-fast debut novel that looks at contemporary America through the eyes of one disillusioned son.
What We Are follows twenty-eight-year-old Samoan-American Paul Tusifale as he strives to find his place in a culture that barely acknowledges his existence. Within a landscape of sprawling freeways and dotcom headquarters, where the plight of migrant workers is ever-present, Paul drifts on and off the radar in San Jose, California, fighting to define himself within a system that has no easy or predetermined place for him.
At first Paul tries to live outside society, an unemployed drifter who takes a personal interest in defiantly—even violently—defending those in need. But when life as an urban Robin Hood fails to provide the answers he seeks, Paul takes a chance on the straight-and-narrow: living in the power structure, getting a job, obeying the law, and seeking to reconnect with his family. Along the way, Paul moves through the lives of sinister old friends, suburban cranksters, and septuagenarian swingers, as he battles to find the wisdom and faith he desperately needs, whether through adhering to tradition or casting it aside.
A dynamic addition to America’s diverse literature of the outsider, What We Are establishes Malae as an energetically gifted writer, whose muscular prose brings to life the pull of a departed father’s homeland, the anger of class divisions, the noise of the evening news, and, in the end, beautifully renders the pathos of the disengaged.
“Peter Nathaniel Malae is the real deal. He’s like a young Nelson Algren or Richard Wright, one of those writers who can hit with both hands.” —Russell Banks
“[What We Are] gives flesh and voice to a ‘me Generation” poet of mixed heritage and tortured outlook.” —Fiona Maazel, The New York Times Book Review
“The voice is gold. . . . A high energy rant narrated by a half-Samoan/half-white drifter trying to survive in a world bent on marginalizing seekers of truth and integrity. . . . [Paul’s] toughness transforms into a heartbreaking shield against futility, and he becomes a man with an idea on how to save us all. . . . [What We Are] bears a message that in the face of the madness of the modern world, the most important thing is to know yourself and to hold onto that at whatever cost.” —Publishers Weekly
“Compelling . . . [A] deeply felt portrait of an outsider who is appalled by much of what he sees around him in a surreal Silicon Valley populated largely by grotesques. Malae’s writing is . . . filled with allusions and aphorisms that range from Nietzsche to Kerouac to crystal-meth zombies.” —Thomas Gaughan, Booklist
“Malae’s writing is palpably masculine . . . as if you can see the muscles bulging in his arms as he writes.” —Regan McMahon, San Francisco Chronicle
“Malae possesses a prodigious command of the masculine American idiom and its ironies. Paul—the unforgettable protagonist of What We Are—is that rarest of literary creatures these days: a hard-living, oft-brawling, culture-straddling, foul-mouthed juggernaut, one who’s as liable to throw a punch as he is to break your heart.” —Rattawut Lapcharoensap, author of Sightseeing
“A rollercoaster ride inside the haunted house of American multi cultural sin and shame. Violent and smart and funny. I am excited by this new writer.” —Sherman Alexie
Praise for Teach the Free Man:
“Inmates, their families, parolees, and prison workers are the subjects of this gritty, compelling collection that reveals a parallel world most readers are fortunate to have avoided encountering. It puts a human face on violence, hardship, and suffering in the name of justice, making them that much harder to ignore.” —The Story Prize
“Vivid . . . [with] gripping, tension-filled episodes [that] reveal the inner workings of a complicated social structure . . . In his depictions of incarcerated life and his development of believable voices, Malae shows promise.” —Publisher’s Weekly
“Malae handles [his characters’] voices so that their language—the slang, the jargon, the argot—rings true and draws us wholly into their hard-luck, often violent, worlds. These are stories from the borders of society and we need to thank Mr. Malae for delivering them to us.” —Darrell Spencer, author of Bring Your Legs With You
“The characters in these stories may be marginalized, but the stories themselves are the work of a talented author who deserves a wide audience. . . . As good fiction must, they broaden our understanding of what it is to be human.” —Rain Taxi
Winner of the San Francisco Foundation’s Joseph Henry Jackson
Finalist for the 2011 Pacific Northwest Book Award
A New York Times Editors’ Choice
I Try to Figure out My American Life
I try to figure out my American life on a lightless corner of a four-stop-sign intersection in a rainstorm, 3:42 A.M., Friday. I could go forward, backward, right, left; it doesn’t matter. I have nowhere to go, really, but around the city, and have wandered along on foot all night.
I dropped into a dive bar called Blinky’s Can’t Say Lounge for a drink and a Johnny Cash tune on the juke, ducked past the flashing neon signs of the Blue Noodle Cabaret Club to watch the beautiful Maxine do acrobatic flips on the pole, smiled my way to a table surrounded by fake bamboo and ceramic dragons and ate kimchi and kalbi and poke sashimi and drank Hite beer and Japanese sake in a Korean-owned sushi bar called Ga Bo Ja, hustled down the aisles of a twenty-four-hour Longs Drugs and bought candy and condoms and a discount umbrella with Pokemon dancing on the latex, and am now peering up beyond the BBs of rain to the mad gray mass of clouds above, not in wonderment or gratitude or even some momentary bout of depression, not in any poor man’s version of self-condemnation, neither contentment nor elation nor anything within that emotional range, but in a strange kind of nothingness that sat somewhere between my head and my heart and had bothered me for much of the day, like a facial tick you’re conscious of but that won’t go away.
I sit down on the curb and try to chill a bit; no melodrama in this empty hollow of the city. The rain morphs into silver glitter. It looks like the mist of a late-night horror flic on the tube, the haze of a northernmost California lumberjack town. The sheen on the street is oily smooth, black like the shine of leather, slick like a duck’s wet back on the pond. I can see the streetlights flickering past Lawrence Expressway and through the little borough of Cupertino and shrinking into dots at De Anza College.
I’m big and brown enough not to have problems on the streets that I don’t create myself. I could be Mexican or Brazilian or Creole or Persian or mulatto or Afghan, or of darker Mediterranean blood, like Sicilian, Moroccan, Greek, or maybe Serb, and I’m tough to peg with this black and logoless beanie on my head pulled down to the brow, the stalker’s knee-length jacket, blue jeans, and slippers. People can’t figure me out on sight and I’m not sure I could either in a first-ever mirror shot.
What I am, by blood anyway, is half Samoan–I’m certain of that–and half American white, which means (if it means anything) that my mother is of your typically mixed brew of Euro descent: English, Irish, Pennsylvania Dutch, Italian, and a smattering of French.
My father used to take my sister and me to the Samoan churches up at Hunter’s Point, a fifty-minute drive from our house in San Jo. This was just before he left for the islands, when my folks were staking cultural claims on their children, like Soviets and Americans planting flags on the moon. I remember one funeral, a big gala affair. Five days long with hordes of big silent men in black polyester ie lavalavas standing stoic and strong, their mitts crossed just under their bellies. I remember the acreage of carnations and roses in the aisles, right out of a Godfather movie. Whenever someone with your own last name would die, you had the responsibility to prepare your cousin or uncle or sister-in-law for the outer realm with the Good Lord. I remember wondering who would send me or my sister off sixty years in the future, if the event would die out first. If Samoans would even be around.
I always felt alone in those churches. I knew that the kids my age and the parents who paid me any attention thought I was diluted, watered down by my mother, too much white blood, an afakasi, a half one. Certain things you can’t reverse, and genetic inheritance is one of them. I couldn’t do much anyway, except be a follower, which I wasn’t about to do, even then. I only knew rudimentary greetings like Talofa, fa’a fe mai oi? and bad words like ufa kefe, and any time I’d hear some elocutory wisdom kicked off in formal Samoan by a visiting high-talking chief matai, his deep, husky, oracular Polynesian voice somehow gentle in its tone, the pews full of three-hundred-pound ladies cooling themselves with woven palm fans, bone-thick youngsters leaning against the walls in red sweaters with red hoods and red picks and red bandannas stuck to their wild black wiry afros, my mind would go to my mother, the one person who was more outside this scene than me. The pure foreigner, slight 140-pound white woman from the Northern California suburb of Campbell, California, lost in the unknowable zone of natives. But she was already long gone by then, had bugged out.
My sister, a year older, looked Samoan as a girl, still does now as a woman. She even got a Samoan name, Tali. I remember her making fun of me: “Paul! Paul! What a white name!” She used to blend right into those occasions. I remember thinking the obvious back then: They like her because she looks like them. Deep down, and maybe not that deep, we’re all phrenologists who fear the albino chimp. How much of Tali’s simple and predictable personality developed in response to their acceptance? Because she had a group to claim in her formative years, and vice versa? At twelve she was wearing T-shirts that read PROUD TO BE SAMOAN, and I always felt embarrassed at her obviousness. How she could wear something like that around our mother, who had entered those churches with the restless yet timid face of a dog seeing the doors of the vet.
Being a half-breed must be part of my problem. When I applied to college out of high school, I didn’t know what to fill in under the category of race. Long distance from American Samoa, my father said over the phone, “Mark Polynesian,” but I couldn’t. Neither could I mark white. I just left the damned thing blank. And that’s exactly how I felt about it: blank. Still do, actually, don’t care either way. By now I know that every culture in the world is equally beautiful, equally ugly. The few years of college I could stand convinced me of that. The few years of prison, too. In either place I was an English major with lots of reading time, lots of watching time.
I quit the daydreaming. I see him spot me from a bus stop across the street, posted up like a light pole. His hightops are out of the 1980s, Velcro straps around the ankle, big Nike swoosh on the tongue. He’s got a hood pulled up over his head, and I can’t find his eyes until he pulls it back and shakes his pointy head in the sprinkling rain. The red and green hair stands out on the ends like a dandelion. From the shoulders up, he looks like a miniature Christmas tree. He looks off and then back at me. He’s on his way over and I don’t move. The distance doesn’t matter; I know what I see way before he reaches me: another suburban zombie on crystal meth.
He’s violently itching one hand and then violently switching to the other. He’s gonna rip through his own damned hand, insane. Sort of sad. Not even within five yards he says, “Wassup, brother? Wassup, brother? Wassup?”
I say, still not moving, “Wassup, man.”
He looks around again. I shake my head. I’ve never used the shit, but I’ve known more than my share of cranksters. Suburb, city, high hills, country, plains, it’s just standard American protocol to see, know, love but never trust your average tweeker. These cats’ll steal from their own mothers, and even if you know one who won’t, he’s still looking over his shoulder like he already did. Always peeking out blinds, hiding behind dumpsters, hanging up the phone in the middle of a conversation. Hooked on an injection of paranoia. He can’t even lie down in the familiarity of his own bed, close himself off from the world, and trust the blackness behind his eyelids.
I say, “You want something, dog?”
He hunches his shoulders, plays the mendicant. “Can you help me with some cash? I’m dying over here, brother, I’m dying.”
He’s husky-necked, sufficiently fat in the cheeks. Early into his journey to the pit. He smiles humbly and has all his teeth. Cauliflower ears, former high school wrestler. A car drives by and he whips around and then back again. In the glare of a struggling moon, his eyes are spinning like a top, but he’s focusing the best he can to press the sincerity of the issue.
“Come on, bro,” I say. “You ain’t dying.”
“I’m dying, brother.”
“Yeah, dying for a fuckin’ fix.”
“No no no no.” He grabs his balls, as if he’s forgotten they were there. He thinks I said fixed. “No, no, brother. It’s okay. I’m all there, man. Right there, that’s right, all there. Everything’s cool, brother.”
“Then you don’t need me.”
“Trust me, brother, I’m dying. I hear the tinny chimes. Help me! I see the reaper, brother.”
“It’s in your head, dog.”
“No, no, no, brother. I’m dying!”
I sniff in some air, indicating a step back from the conversation. Somehow he reads the insinuation and does just that: one step back, though he doesn’t leave. He’s balancing on the curb, heel to toe, and I’m waiting for him to spill over, then jump up and go sprinting down the street. This is the point where anyone else would leave. Not him. Me.
“What the hell,” I say. “I’ll get you some food, man. Come on.”
He thinks it over, as if he has a better offer. Then he says, “Okay, brother. Okay. Where do you live?”
I laugh out loud, it feels good. The rain comes again, in one big orgasmic gust. As it is, I’m probably broker than this cat. “Hey, bro,” I say. “Gimme your money.”
He steps back again.
“Nah. Just kidding, man. Let’s get to Jack in the Crack, dog. I’ll buy you a burger.”
“So you got money then?” he says, and right there I know that unless this crankster has a midnight revelation, we’ll be fighting soon enough over the $3.68 in my pocket.
I say, “Follow me,” and he does, staying a half step to my rear.
We walk through the rain toward El Camino Real. I remember the Pokemon umbrella, pull it out of my jacket, and hand it to the crankster. I don’t think about why it’s taken me this long to use it. He doesn’t say thank you, doesn’t grunt, nod. Doesn’t pop it. He jams the umbrella into the pocket of his pants, a future tradeable good, and looks behind him for the ghosts of the past. All he finds is the Vuong Vu Video Outlet, an Afghan grocery store called House of Khan, and an Exxon station patched with the lights of skyrocketing prices. Each one closed, each empty of bodies. On the horizon the stars glisten behind the blur of the clouds, and if anything opens up tonight, I will welcome whatever comes.
He pulls out a bottle of good vodka from his pocket, takes a shot, repockets it.
I don’t think on his hoarding selfishness. Ravished by greed and cowardice, a man of the streets gets villainous with needs. Breathing in the cool wet air, I drift into the warm realm of remembrance. The earth water seems to stimulate the senses: sky water, ocean water, river water. The Ohlone, I learned in fourth grade, call it the blood of the mother. I always thought that accurate. Just to be there with her, or inside her, at the tips of life’s fingers. Back then, at nine, I used to stand under the apricot tree in our yard and ask the big questions of God. I’d let the rain mix in with my tears. I’d address to the vast angry hanging sky those problems which my Sunday School teacher couldn’t ever answer in front of the class. She’d always wait for the good kids to leave and then take me aside (“Now listen here, young man”), max out on the intimidation of adulthood, buttress her arguments with size and force and a mysterious alliance with my parents. When my folks split and my mother started taking us to the grand old Catholic Church, I addressed those same problems again at confession with Father McFadden, Papa Mac, a real gentleman, cool cat. He’d cleverly reverse the burden of doubt into ten assigned Hail Marys (“Salvation comes from within, lad”). But the core of every question I had was the rational position that I didn’t believe.
My namesake, Paul, had died alone, sanctified in a Roman dungeon, and I, at nine, was certain to the point of excommunication that one either sank or swam when traversing water and that if five thousand people were fed by five fish, four thousand nine hundred and ninety-five people had lied and been left hungry and that dead was dead, however you looked at it and that some people who still lived in grass huts and sat naked around a savage fire at night had never even heard of Jesus. And I’d felt self-pity over this, over my fakery in the face of God.
When I wasn’t struck down by lightning for my lie, the internal lie, the worst kind of lie, my living in itself was the true indictment of holy scripture, tangible proof of my doubt. Though I didn’t know it, I was beginning a fifteen-year journey whose days began and ended with the same longing. The minute you eliminate God, everything else comes down like dominoes. I can see tonight without the haze of zealotry, yes. But I’m not thankful or stupidly proud. The cost for clairvoyance is high and personal and ironical: I yearn to harness the pure, blurred, blood-rushing ecstasy of my species. I desire belief, faith. But I feel nothing worthy of a golden book chalice to save us. My psyche is fine and undaunted. I’m an anti-epiphany, ultra-knowing yet ultra-nothing, the new American.
We reach Hamsun Park and quiet desolation. Streetlights dwindle in number. I imagine them from above: little matchsticks in the ocean waves of darkness. We cut across the grass and beneath the conical pines and through the piles of needles collecting in the puddles. Sand in the playground clumps like cafeteria oatmeal. At the barbecue pits is a scattering of empty Budweiser boxes, some intact and tossed to the side, others torn in half and smashed, a few shredded into strips, red and white tiger stripes on the lawn. Broken glass crunches under our feet. I slap at a pinata dangling from the branch of a dead birch tree. It’s been split down the middle in one swift Caesarian whack, barren inner wall lined with newspaper. I remember a line from Hemingway: The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty. Little piles of streamers are spread across the grass: red, green, white. A few eggshells pool in dried yolk. Popped balloons, colorful scraps of rubber, all kinds of fiesta debris. There will be ample labor in the morning for the green-T’d park worker with a generic tree on the pocket.
The crankster speeds up so that we’re side by side, and as I say, “What’s your name, dog?” he shows me the blade, his hand jerking worse than his face.
I shrug, half smile. The tempests are loose. He’s picked the wrong night, the wrong knife, the wrong person. A box cutter the size of a Pez dispenser won’t break leathery skin like mine. And even if it does, who cares? I won’t die on site. And even if I do, it’ll be long after the fight is finished. And then the question is: What will I lose? It’s not bravado; it’s a desperate longing for happening: something, anything. I almost want him to stab me, just to see how the thing turns out. Just to act without there strictions of conscious thought. Just to act.
His one eyebrow which still has nerves rises in apprehension. If he was hard-core or hard up, he would have stabbed me in the back to take my wallet. In fact, he would’ve done it before we’d ever talked. That he shows me the weapon means he doesn’t want to use it, and it’s that simple. He sees I’ve done the math, and suddenly his other eyebrow comes to life.
By now, at twenty-eight, I’ve been in a dozen situations twice as perilous. He couldn’t know this, but he should’ve guessed. It’s always best to keep wild cards like me in the public eye so that the mind, facile in darkness, doesn’t wander into the isolated quandary of justified self-defense. Isolated, violated, I now have the right to kill this crankster, to leave his corpse to that same park worker for a life-changing discovery at dawn.
I say, “You’re gonna get your burger, bro. Just take it easy.”
I turn around and start to walk. From behind, I hear, “Hey, hey. You. Hey.” I stop. He’s poised like a half-ass wrestler, the knife loose and limp in his hand, not sure if he should get down any lower.
I spit into the ash of a barbecue pit. “So you wanna do something, homie? You wanna go there, you Christmas-tree looking mutherfucker?”
He doesn’t move, but looks over one shoulder, then the other. This kind of language he understands, a simple proposition grounded in threat. He pockets the knife and his shoulders rise: the friendly beggar again. Walks over to me, stops at three yards, leans away as if he’s about to race in the other direction and is waiting for the starting gun to fire, asks, “Is it okay?”
All huff and all puff but no blow.
“Yeah, man,” I say, reassuringly. “Just quit with all that stupid shit, man. Let’s get you a burger so you can be on your fucked-up way.
“Okay, brother. Whatever you say, man. Anything you say, brother.”