Francisco Goldman’s latest novel is semi-autobiographical. The narrator’s name (Francisco Goldberg) is a slight variation of the author’s; and like Goldman, the fictional Francisco is the child of a Catholic Guatemalan mother and a Jewish Ukrainian father who grew up in Boston and is now a novelist and journalist.
Family pain is almost palpable in Monkey Boy. The adult narrator looks back on his childhood and teenage years being bullied by both white kids in his neighborhood and his own father. Indeed, Frankie’s father is physically and emotionally abusive not only of his son but also of his daughter and wife. Goldman’s harrowing portrait of how a sensitive son both despises his father for his violent nature yet craves his approval rings completely true. So too, does his mother’s wavering between leaving her husband and staying with him.
Frankie shows no early promise as a writer or student, but ultimately finds his voice as novelist and investigative journalist in Latin America. We can draw the parallels between oppressive family dynamics and repressive authoritarian regimes. The political and personal are inextricably intertwined in the novel as the narrative moves back and forth between different times and locations. Unity is provided by the voice of the narrator, who struggles to make sense of the pain of the distant and recent past. A scene in which the young investigative journalist encounters tortured corpses in a Guatemalan morgue — and begins to truly comprehend life in his maternal ancestors’ country — is unforgettable.
Most moving is the portrayal of Frankie’s long-suffering mother — her devotion to her children, her final years with dementia. The narrator is also candid about his largely failed relationships with women. How the narrator explores his own identity, including the discovery of a surprise African grandparent, and struggles for self-understanding while coming to terms with his past and present life, is almost seamlessly handled.
The narrator’s scarred childhood and adolescence, failed romances, and encounter with the brutal crimes of the Guatemalan dictatorship give this novel a plangent tone that is nonetheless leavened with touches of warmth and humor. Monkey Boy is a worthy successor to Francisco Goldman’s earlier fiction.