When Excel comes back nine months later, he surprises Maxima at home: She jumps up with “a switchblade aimed right at him,” mistaking him for an intruder. “Though he didn’t think she’d look any different,” Tenorio writes, “he’s caught off guard by how much she resembles the way he often imagines her — weapon in hand, ready to strike.” Once a low-budget action movie actor in Manila, Maxima lit out for the United States when she was eight months pregnant with Excel. She found safe haven with Joker, her “grandmaster in the Filipino martial art of escrima.”
By the time the novel begins, Joker has died, destabilizing their makeshift family, but Maxima’s athletic drive has not. Tenorio interweaves Maxima’s dialogue with her daily training routine; as she grinds through menial jobs and prepares (like many immigrants) care packages for family back home, Maxima also makes time for pull-ups, push-ups and whaling on “The Bod,” her blue, male-torso-shaped boxing machine. When Maxima spends an afternoon watching TV, “she isn’t so much lounging and relaxing as she’s keeping still, as though exerting as little energy as possible, saving it all for the night ahead.”
The book cuts back and forth in time, revealing more about Excel’s past — such as when his mother decides to tell him, on his 10th birthday, that they are “T.N.T.,” a Filipino abbreviation for undocumented immigrants — as he works through memories in the present. And yet “The Son of Good Fortune” is not overtly political, remaining vague about the pressures the U.S. government puts on people like Excel and Maxima. Tenorio’s insistence on the specificity of his characters’ dreams and longings is its own kind of argument for their right to be here.
The women in this book — Maxima, Sab, Maxima’s friend Roxy — are by the far the strongest and most compelling characters. And compared to his mother’s online scheming, Excel’s digital and real-life naïveté sometimes feel unconvincing, as though we’re meant to believe that hermetic disconnectedness is a form of self-protection.
Still, Tenorio finds a way for Excel to exercise his own kind of nonconfrontational power: When he realizes a co-worker is even worse off than he is, he finds strength in helping save someone else.