Neither Heaven Nor Hell: One Night In Purgatory
By Mondie Reyes
Wednesday, May 02, 2001
It's 11 in the evening, and I have with me a bottle of gin-bulag, nice Gregorian chants playing in the CD, a computer in front of me, and the latest, and probably most controversial book to come out of the Alamat stable of writers and artists: One Night in Purgatory.
It's not about superheroes in spandex, or ultra-violent gunfights; it's not about good mutants versus wicked intelligent machines – on the contrary, it's all about real life. And it is real life with a vengeance.
Written and illustrated by Carlo Vergara, it's a story about love, but no ordinary love, as Sade (the singer) would say; for one, it's not a happily-ever-after story; in fact, it deals with the aftermath of what could have been happily-ever-after.
Enter our two characters: Deio and Casey. Both are the best of friends, though rather estranged; as will be explained in the course of the tale. It all starts with a phone call; Casey wants to touch base with Deio again after time away. Deio, it seems, has just broken up with his latest lover – a man, and Casey has broken up with his girlfriend. Both are in between relationships, and all the talk leads to some surprising avenues – explored and unexplored. While driving around the city, talking over food and coffee, and basically just having a tailgate talk with the trunk of a car as a sofa, their stories unfold – intertwining stories of love, loss, denial, endings and beginnings. They are friends and yet not friends; like the black and white of the novel, there is a certain shadow to the light of their friendship. But friends will be friends, and that is where the story takes off.
The topic of gay love has always been a sensitive subject; even friendships between gay and straight people have been discouraged, sometimes actively. But the friendship between Deio and Casey transcends these boundaries – though ironically, it is precisely this that causes the problem. And with the characters so fleshed out, it's hard to imagine that they are not based on real life people – something the author prefers to have a Mona Lisa smile about.
The art style is in black and white, as it should be. The starkness and simplicity of the artwork, the way the shadings are used…they serve to enhance, not to distract from the story itself, creating a world that is not just close to ours, but could very well be ours: Deio and Casey could be your kabarkadas, and you wouldn't know about it. Deio, the young artistic one, and Casey, the go-getting corporate guy. But in the story, one gets feelings of noir, and at the same time there is an overall calm, as if all that is happening is a coda; perhaps we are seeing the end of a story – so very Filipino, to weave a tale told in layers: perhaps they are just friends; read on.
This subtlety is at the center of the sadness of the story, but it is no foregone conclusion. Rather, it leads us to a climax or realization – not one that screams at us like a didactic sledgehammer. It is a thunderous one, for sure, but not one of destructive intensity – this is a climax that will probably go down in the annals of local comic book history as controversial if not downright singular.
This is the heart of the story – of Carlo's own story, perhaps, or his friends'. I asked him about that, as he was signing my copy…and his only answer was again the Mona Lisa smile.
If that sounded too esoteric, well then, you are right; I can't say much without revealing the true punch of the story. One could say that it is a coming-out and coming-of-age story, but to say more would be like peeking at the last page of a novel. But I will say this: it is not the ending we would like, but it is an ending that we have to live with along with Deio and Casey.
As for me, my own experiences have caught up with me thanks to this book. So help me now with the gin and the Gregorian chants, and perhaps in the morning, I'll be up…and forget my own nights in Purgatory.