Mon­key Boy

Fran­cis­co Goldman

  • Review
By – June 14, 2021

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.

Josh Han­ft holds Advanced Degrees in Eng­lish and Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty and curat­ed the renowned read­ing series, Scrib­blers on the Roof, for over twen­ty years.

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