English departments rethink what to call themselves

Jakob Guanzon lives in New York’s Sugar Hill neighborhood north of Harlem. But his stunning debut novel, “Abundance,” about fathers and sons, social class, race, health care and poverty, was born in Minnesota.

Jakob Guanzon

Guanzon, who turned 32 this month, grew up in the Twin Cities. He’s the son of immigrants; his mother, Mi Wikstrom from Sweden and his dad, Nilo Pelea Guanzon (to whom he dedicated the book), from the Philippines.

When we talked on the telephone it sounded like Guanzon has an undefinable accent. “I have a subdued Minnesota accent that I mitigate on the Coast,” he joked. “I worked in Madrid (Spain) for four years as an English teacher and translator and I learned to communicate and articulate as clearly as possible for English learners by rounding out my words.”

More of Jakob’s local background: After his parents divorced, he spent his childhood moving between his mother’s house in Minneapolis and his father’s in Eagan. He graduated from the School of Environmental Studies in Apple Valley, and from Hamline University, Class of 2011, where he majored in sociology and minored in English. He put himself through high school and college by working at Twin City Landscape. And, his novel is published in paperback by Minneapolis-based Graywolf Press.

FROM 38 CENTS to $50,000 AND BACK

“Abundance,” set somewhere in the Midwest, is about Filipino American Henry and his son, Junior, living in their truck after they were kicked out of the trailer park. Henry loves Junior above all things and will do anything, including illegal drug sales, to keep them going. In a unique format, the chapter headings are amounts of money Henry had or has, ranging from 38 cents to $50,000 (which disappears in a night of drinking and gambling). After Henry returns from five years in prison, his wife leaves her husband and son and they are on their own.

When the story begins Henry has scrapped together just enough money to treat Junior on his birthday to dinner at McDonald’s and a night in a real bed in a motel. But Junior is feeling sick and doesn’t even want the meal. The next day, Henry has an interview that he hopes will get him a job taking them back to a normal life. But after an altercation in the parking lot, things only get worse.

If there is one word to sum up emotions elicited by this story, it might be how the reader aches for these characters. It’s an example of how fiction can be more “real” than real life.

“I think the word ‘ache’ does capture the sense of the book,” Guanzon said. “When it comes to living under financial hardship there is something so pervasive about the experience of not having enough money to get through it pollutes every facet of our experience. Poverty is not something you can compartmentalize like everything else in your life. Poverty stands over your shoulder, crushing you down.”

The reader aches for Henry when he has to staple the hems of his old dress pants the night before his interview, and when he sits in the bathtub memorizing answers to interviewers’ possible questions. When Henry gets annoyed because he’s late for his interview, his legacy of rage breaks through the surface and he insists Junior go to school, even though the boy has a raging fever. You ache for the sick little guy trudging off with his backpack. You ache for them when both the medical clinic’s distracted receptionist and the school principal refuse to give the kid ibuprofen.

There is a Walmart nearby, but it is out of Henry’s reach because he has only 38 cents. You ache for him as he begins his long, slow  walk through Walmart to the pharmacy department, passing colorful displays and blank-faced shoppers, to get the pills his boy needs no matter what he has to do.

“Abundance,” an ironic title, is getting love from critics. A starred review in Publishers Weekly: “… Henry’s attempts to fend off relentless adversity for the sake of his son are heartbreaking. This one hits hard.”

Steve Woodward, Graywolf senior editor who acquired the novel and worked closely with Guanzon, was smitten by the story as soon as he began reading it.

“I was traveling for a conference to Boston, and I found myself slipping away to finish the book. I couldn’t let it go,” Woodward recalled. “Jakob’s writing and voice on the page are visceral and immediate and beautiful. I was captivated by his moving, insightful, empathetic take on the crushing weight of poverty. This book is incredibly timely, speaking to themes that seem so relevant and painful. Every page is talking directly to the big issues we are trying to grapple with today.”

Guanzon says he worked hard to make Henry a complex character who occasionally makes bad choices. But sometimes, he points out, bad choices are the only way for people to make money so they can eat. Only those not living in poverty have real choices.

“I didn’t think it would be fair to present Henry as a saint, a martyr for low-income working-class people,” he explained. “That’s a banal presentation of what’s going on. Certain attitudes towards the poor break my heart. Like, ‘Why don’t they get a job?’ Henry is not presented as some slovenly guy exploiting the welfare system. He’s busting his ass, doing hard labor for very small amounts of money. An American value I cherish is hard work. But I also believe in fair returns, fair wages and being treated as human beings for time and labor. This is an enormous problem in this country. People have to hold two jobs to have a roof over their heads.”

LANDSCAPING AND LEARNING

Guanzon began writing when he was 7 years old and his parents went through a divorce.

“I was a quiet kid and I could put my feelings in the journal,” he recalled. “I got in the habit of processing things through writing. In high school I dabbled with short stories. I was certainly getting all sorts of spicy material from rough-and-tumble guys on the landscaping crew. They would get into mischief and I would tag along.”

Those guys worked for Twin City Landscape, where Guanzon was on the payroll from the time he was 16 years old. When he graduated from Hamline at the peak of the financial crisis, he went back to landscaping because he had no other options.

“I don’t think it is much of a stretch to say it is any less formative to do landscaping than going to university,” he says. “It taught me the meaning of work, and grueling work, wrestling boulders all day, building walls and staircases out of stone the size of a coffee table. There is nothing more satisfying than having a tangible finished product you worked on with a team.”