Alternating between the Philippines and the United States, namely New York and Los Angeles, The Gangster of Love is the story of Rocky Rivera, who plays in a dissolute rock band with her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Elvis Chang; Rocky's spirited and deeply traditional mother, Milagros; her troubled and bedeviled brother, Voltaire; her wonderfully eccentric uncle, Marlon; and her best friend, the wildly unpredictable, enigmatic Keiko. These, along with other characters real and imagined, form a family story spanning generations and cultures. Together they grow to and through adulthood, acquiring spouses, lovers, companions, children, and in-laws; making a place for themselves in the world; shattering myths, icons, and expectations; struggling to find that point where alienation and assimilation, identity and dignity, coincide.
Hagedorn's long-awaited but ultimately disappointing second novel (her first, Dogeaters, was a finalist for the National Book Award) is the mostly first-person account of Rocky Rivera, who has emigrated from the Philippines to the United States along with her mother and her emotionally disturbed brother, Voltaire. Rocky has a hippyish adolescence in 1970s San Francisco, then moves to New York City with her boyfriend, Elvis Chang, and her best friend, a photographer named Keiko. Rocky and Elvis form a band, while Keiko enjoys huge (and rather improbable) success as an artist. While Hagedorn's first novel utilized multiple perspectives and collage techniques to great effect, here her occasional shifts in point of view seem motivated mainly by an inability to keep her somewhat meandering novel moving along. Offering little in the way of plot, the book's narcissistic characters and bohemian milieu soon begin to wear thin. Hagedorn does remain a sharp observer of cross-cultural identity as her Filipino characters adjust to life in the U.S.; the novel is at its best when dealing head-on with issues of assimilation. But on the whole, this feels like apprentice work in comparison to what Hagedorn achieved in her debut. (Aug.)