FRANCISCO GOLDMAN’S LATEST NOVEL, Monkey Boy, launches its protagonist, Frankie Goldberg, on a journey of self-reflection, as he takes a three-day voyage from New York City to visit his ailing Guatemalan mother in the Boston area. Old neighborhoods and haunts rush by his train window, triggering memories of a past he’d thought hidden, blacked out. From his experiences of an abusive father and childhood bullies to the events of the Guatemalan Civil War, about which he writes articles as a journalist (including an assassination case he is investigating that is tied to the war), Frankie excavates the past in the hopes of finding himself among the rubble of his memories.
A man much like Goldman himself — Jewish, Guatemalan, American, journalist, novelist — Frankie looks back on the trauma of his life and says, “Like all war stories, the ones you went through yourself I mean, no matter how many times you tell it, you never feel like you get it quite right.” The language of trauma he discovers, memory by incomplete memory, grasps for the elusive truth — a near impossibility when rummaging through wars personal and political. Friends and family fill blanks he never realized existed, forcing him to again retell the event, the trauma — the truth. As protagonist and author of his own story, Frankie doesn’t just record his own memories, he also absorbs others’ points of view in order to capture as much of himself as possible.
His father, a failed patriarch who takes out his frustrations on his son, looms as the ever-present ghost in the narrative. From the opening lines, Frankie swears he’s not like him, that he’s anything but. Yet, as he wakes up early for his Boston trip, he recalls how his father used to get up early too, how he moved around the house, and now “feel[s] like I’m his shadow falling across the decades into my apartment.” His quiet father would suddenly erupt into verbal and physical abuse, wounds that Frankie realizes, years later, remain sore in his body and mind. As he nears the facility where his mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, now lives, he recalls her pleading during one such beating, “Bert! Bert! Not in the head! […] It happened so often all the different times blend into one long memory. […] HaHaHa — that roared fake laughter of his that I hated. Is that what they call you, Monkey Boy?”
Goldman eliminates dialogue tags and quotation marks here and throughout the novel; in this scene, the words of mother, father, and son blend together in memory, laced with Frankie’s current commentary. This continuous flow of images and collapsing of time thrusts Frankie into the position of both victim and witness. He controls the narrative, at least partially; there are enduring scars laid down by his father, but Frankie is taking back some of what his father stole — his agency to tell his own story as he remembers and imagines it.
Even more crucial to the narrative is the racism Frankie encounters at school — they call him Monkey Boy because he hails from “banana land” and the effects of tuberculosis affect his gait; they also call him Chimp Face, Pablo, and Gols. This treatment is forever linked back to his father, a Polish Jew who encounters his own racial and sociopolitical obstacles. The father, who focuses his resentments on his son after being punished by the community that won’t accept either of them, becomes the fulcrum on which Frankie’s pain rests and which he must face in order to unlock parts of himself he’s stored away. These repressed memories include his neighborhood’s racism against black, brown, and Jewish families, as well as the fact that his father almost beat him to death and that, as a result, he has rejected his father’s Polish background and passionately embraced his mother’s Guatemalan heritage.
But Frankie doesn’t arrive at these moments of clarity alone. His girlfriend tells him once, “you just shed [the bad experiences] and go on to the next thing.” Unlike his sister, who expresses her suffering and goes to therapy, Frankie controls the shape of his memories until the trauma boils out of him during this trip. Over the years, it’s been easier to love his mother and hate his father and thus forget the familial divide. Unearthing the past requires him to be content with uncertainty, with the fact that he can’t draw a line and say he’s not completely like his father. Nor can he say he’s completely like his mother. But, while he comes to understand his father’s plight, he still relates to his mother’s struggle as an immigrant before and after coming to the United States, to her quiet resoluteness and her Guatemalan humor, to her in-betweenness: “My mother, like so many other immigrants, has lived her life between two cultures and countries; after enough years had passed, she may have felt that she didn’t quite fit in either, never the United States, no longer Guatemala.”
If his father holds up a fist to the unfairness of life and to his family, Mamita lives out her life in spite of this unfairness, shielding her children as much as possible. She also exposes Frankie to his Guatemalan roots by sending him to spend time with her family in the country, something he continues to do while reporting from Guatemala during its civil war.
But Mamita, like Frankie, keeps parts of her life locked away too, details he plucks from her during his visits. “I feel like a burglar who’s broken into her memory,” he writes. He records her memories before the Alzheimer’s can erase them or before she notices her son reaching for them. Turning his investigative skills on his own family, Frankie comes across a picture of Abuelita posing with his great-grandfather, which sparks one of the major revelations in the novel: his Guatemalan family’s true racial heritage, kept secret for generations until now. Frankie must decide not just how to process this information — this “racial shame,” as he calls it — but also what to do with it, how to live with this enforced silence. As his collective history resurfaces, it brings Frankie closer to his own identity and the diverse aspects that make it up.
Personal and political violence converge in Monkey Boy as Goldman explores over a century of American capitalist-driven military policies and their impact on Guatemala. Because Mamita, who worked at the Guatemalan Consulate in Boston during her younger years, might know more than she lets on about the 1954 coup and the United Fruit Company’s role in it (land grabbing, the murder of indigenous people, arms deals, etc.), the sessions at her nursing home become that much more crucial. During Frankie’s time reporting on the Guatemalan Civil War in the 1980s and ’90s, his friend Ursula took him on a tour of a morgue, an experience that collapsed his journalistic distance and brought him face to face with the injustices carried out by the military and politicians. The mutilated bodies of young indigenous men lay on the autopsy tables, with cigarette burns and other scars of torture raw on their flesh: “[T]o witness something like that implicates you, it allows that reality to go on living inside you, growing darker, more impenetrable, unless you accept the challenge of living with it and trying to make it clearer instead of ever darker and more confusing.”
Frankie realizes how far American exceptionalism, the legacy of colonialism, reaches and how deeply its corruption slithers, with one military conflict after another funded by the United States and bolstered by power-hungry Guatemalan leaders willing to exploit their country. Some of his family members choose to ignore the violence in Guatemala, putting him at odds with his own kin. Yet he publishes his articles, and later a book, anyway. This book, which chronicles his investigation of an assassinated bishop, influences the outcome of the presidential election in Guatemala. (If this seems far-fetched, one should read Goldman’s 2014 book, The Art of Political Murder, and watch the recent HBO documentary based on it, in order to understand the critical and dangerous information he and his journalistic peers exposed.) Years later, Frankie comes to understand that his personal memory, like the political journalism he produces, can only become clearer if he mines an overarching communal memory that speaks to the truth.
In developing a coherent narrative, Frankie’s biggest problem is that there are just so many clues — a picture, a conversation, a text message, one leading to another, sending him down new investigative roads. He asks questions faster than he can transcribe the answers, until he realizes there is an integral, missing link in the whole investigation — himself. “A brother is missing,” he says when he sees how little he knows about his own sister anymore. His obsession for the past and passion for the truth have ironically left him rootless, moving between New York City, Boston, Mexico City, Guatemala City. He realizes that there’s a void where self and family should be.
Yet this very rootlessness speaks to the core of his personal and familial identity: he doesn’t feel fully American, but neither does he feel fully Guatemalan — or Jewish, and he’s not Catholic like his mother. In a moment that might encapsulate Frankie’s search and the novel’s heart, he reflects: “You could be both at the same time. Perhaps not always coherently at the same time, maybe visibly one while invisibly the other and vice versa.” It’s as if, after nearly five decades of life, Frankie has finally become comfortable with himself, with the neither/nor of immigrant experience and mixed-race identity.
The self in Monkey Boy remains as elusive as the history and politics it’s borne out of. Frankie realizes that part of his identity is chosen while another part has been chosen for him: he can’t deny his Guatemalan heritage (if anything, he pines for it), but nor can he deny his Americanness or his Jewish background. Toward the end of the novel, he is forced to contend with the privilege that allows him to lean more one way than another, and the fact that his family has “hidden” their true racial identity for generations. After returning to the places of memory and the sites of trauma, the truth, though fragmented, eventually resurfaces and, with it, indivisible parts of the self.