There are books of essays that read like badly-written sitcoms—those unwelcoming, forgettable narratives that love listening to their own voices bellowing from the pages.
On the other hand, there are those which break the mould of non-fiction storytelling and serve us stories that stay with us for the rest of our lives.
Sarge Lacuesta’s “A Waiting Room Companion” is one such book. In fact, it is the most profitable human activity to own this book and read it, over and over and over, to ritualistically delight in the confectionary here served by one of the country’s virtuosi of fiction.
To begin, there’s really nothing ‘casual’ about the skill that went with the writing of Lacuesta’s non-fiction prose. Judging by the way the author graced each line with reminiscences at once humorous and profound, it’s safe to say that the author is very much at home with the genre.
Lacuesta’s prose reminds me of three of my favorite masters of non-fiction: the first two being Michael Chabon and Joseph Epstein. Their brand of humor takes the reader from one exhilarating ride to the other with hardly any jolt or joggle from under the seat.
If you’ve tried your hand at creative non-fiction, you’d know the slips and slithers of bumping into those jagged edges that often rear their ugly heads in the course of the penning of a piece. Lacuesta trudges the landscape with relative ease, tripping on gold nuggets as he digs and paves for material.
I would also venture to say that his stint as editor-at-large of Esquire Philippines lends a journalistic swank to his pieces along the same bar as the New Yorker writer and novelist Truman Capote’s Portraits and Observations, complete with the array of stunning detail and storytelling.
Lacuesta is no stranger to baring his soul as essays are wont to do, to baring his funny bone, and the genre for all its worth.
One can take a tour of any number of Lacuesta’s ‘explorations’ into non-fiction and find their feet either in Tokyo or treading the cobblestones of Vigan, or better yet, hot on the heels of voluptuous Ellen Adarna all in one go.
The book, in point of fact, is the perfect waiting room companion, with each story serving as a voyeur’s wet dream into untold caches of the author’s memory here and afar.
I particularly love “The Last Samurai,” with its attention to detail and, for that race for the gold, some ‘postwar, existentialist’ humor. Nothing like Lacuesta saying it with all the chic and flair of Sartre awash in dopamine.
“Touching the doorknob on the bathroom door in our Tokyo hotel room signals the toilet to raise its lid. I suppose the technology is not difficult to figure out—a couple of sensors, a series of switches—but the question really is why? Still, there it was, silent and expectant, and I was a broken diabetic who really needed to pee. It’s just one of a long line of reassurances that greets us on our first night in Tokyo.”
Some of Lacuesta’s best lines are found in his all-too-poetic renderings of what he saw and felt during his family’s visit to Japan.
“Gion, Kyoto’s most famous geisha district, looks largely untroubled by time, only perhaps by the seasons. The leaves haven’t turned but I can tell they’re about to. The district’s centrepiece is a mere street flanked by a quiet stream, and I can’t describe it any further than this because there are no words that will fit. I can’t even tell if it has just rained or there are tears in my eyes.”
And then the magazine editor raises his head, eyes and guns blazing, as he and his family dropped by a sushi bar.
“As I respectfully contemplate the white tendril of tentacle on its pillow of white rice, I realize this is also the town that gave us tentacle porn. I look at the sushi master and wonder if he is into it.”
There are very few Filipino essay writers I know who can write long yet enchanting pieces on such subjects as bathtubs and aging lovers. Lacuesta takes these topics in hand, and in the same cone as the Midas of myth, turns them into stunning, breathless gold.
On sex in bathtubs: “I’ve never really had it. It probably tastes like soap and hurts more than car sex. But I can understand car sex. There’s the urgency and speed and thrill of being found out. Making love in bathtubs, on the other hand, is quite premeditated. It’s for careful planning, such as the trimming of nails or the shaving of body hair or the lighting of many candles or the strewing of rose petals, as one might have seen in bad movies.” (“The Leading Bathtubs of the World”)
On lovers old and young: “But the toughest time I have is when you tell me it’s not all about me all the time. You think I’m listening because it makes sense. I’m only listening because you call me sweetheart.” (“Letter from the Old Man”)
To write an honest, well-buffed essay is no different from standing on one’s front porch buck-naked, exposed under a quite tender sun, moles and all. There’s a freedom to the personal essay that is both embarrassing and invigorating. It’s a writer’s one chance at leaving the isolation required by his craft if only to tell it like it is.
Here, the author speaks as the swordsman on the hill, unguarded by the rules of fiction and the shackles of rhyme. Lacuesta has taken all that into his hands and soared with it, and added tiers of insight into what could otherwise had just been a petty, self-serving memoir.
My fearless forecast: Sarge Lacuesta’s “A Waiting Room Companion,” published by the Ateneo de Manila University Press, is a book which will never grow old.