Dark Blue Suit
November 16, 1997
By Alex Tizon
A telling scene in Peter Bacho’s new story collection takes place in a martial-arts school, on a flat piece of wood about the size of a door — a fighting platform, with no ropes and no room to run. Two men, separated only by the length of their limbs, pummel each other until one is knocked off. The idea: learn to fight or lose your ground.
It’s a fitting metaphor for Dark Blue Suit and Other Stories (University of Washington Press), which is about fighters but isn’t a fight book. The 12 related stories revolve around a group of aging Filipino immigrants, part of the “manong generation” of the 1920s and ’30s whose platform was the American Dream and whose task was to fight for it or lose everything.
More than anything else, this book is a tribute to those “manongs,” a title of respect given to older men. The manongs made up the first big wave of Filipino immigration to the U.S. this century. Working as migrant farm and cannery workers, they fought against bigotry, for better pay and for the right to be treated like men. They fought for the respect, and company, of women.
In the course of all this fighting, some became real fighters. The professional prize ring for Filipinos, as for other hardscrabble people, was a natural venue, an extension of their life struggle. “The ring provided that rare chance to be judged as an equal,” writes Bacho in a story about an old fight fan. “In the ring, a Filipino could beat a white man with his fists and not be arrested.”
The book tells a distinctly Seattle story about a little-known group of men in an often-ignored part of town. Most of the stories take place in the International District and the Central Area, where the 47-year-old Bacho was born and raised. For years, Filipinos have been the city’s largest Asian group — some 40,000 in the Puget Sound area — so their sheer number makes them an important part of Seattle history.
“Dark Blue Suit” reads like a memoir, with each story told in the first-person by Buddy, a character who is clearly Bacho’s alter ego. In the opening title story, Buddy tells of his immigrant father, who has worked his way out of the fields to be a cannery foreman wearing a resplendent dark blue suit — “pressed and perfect, fit for a mayor.” The story also introduces other characters who reappear throughout the book — all manongs who fight the good fight but somehow end up in cheap “hot-plate rooms” that smell like cigarettes.
As with his first book, “Cebu,” which won an American Book Award, Bacho skillfully melds fiction with historical fact. One story explores the formation of the Alaskan cannery union; another, the racial tension of the 1960s; another, the effects of Vietnam on a single human psyche. Yet not all carry this historical weight. Some are simple tales of love, mostly unrequited, and dreams, mostly unfulfilled.
Bacho, who teaches at the University of Washington at Tacoma, writes clean and unpretentious prose, and Buddy’s narrative voice is likable, quirky, sometimes wistful verging on sentimental. It all works. With the succinctness of a poet, Bacho manages to fit into a slim volume the saga of an entire generation.
The best pieces in “Dark Blue Suit” go beyond the specific story of the Filipino manongs to tell of immigrants, dreamers and explorers everywhere. Ultimately, these are the stories of transplanted souls — about dislocation, memory and longing, about getting knocked off the platform again and again, yet somehow finding a way, and a reason, to get back on.