Randy Ribay’s “Patron Saints of Nothing” is a powerful coming-of-age story about a Filipino-American teenager trying to uncover the truth about his cousin’s murder. It takes place in the present day Philippines. Since taking office in June of 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte has instated a zero tolerance policy against drugs and crime, even going so far as to encourage members of the public to kill those whom they suspect to be criminals or drug addicts. Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 12,000 people have died as a result of this drug war, with the majority being the urban poor.
Like Ribay, the main character, Jay Reguero, was born in the Philippines and raised in the Midwest. Jay, your typical American high school senior, was set to attend the University of Michigan in the fall. Beyond that, his only plan was to spend spring break and summer playing as many video games as possible with his best friend, Seth. That all changed when he learned of the death of his cousin, Jun. Jun had become another nameless, faceless victim in President Duterte’s war on drugs, “his death tallied as an improvement to society.”
It seemed his family was content to leave it that way, but Jay couldn’t. The Jun he knew would never have used or sold drugs. The Jun who once consoled Jay after the puppy he was caring for died, who “had a way of making people pay attention, of making them realize that others existed outside of themselves and getting them to care.” Or would he? They hadn’t spoken in years, not since Jay stopped replying to Jun’s letters. Not since Jun ran away from home three years ago.
Determined to find out what really happened to his cousin, Jay travels back to the country where he was born to confront his uncle, Jun’s father, who is a police chief in Manilla. While there, he finds a list of known drug pushers in his uncle’s desk with Jun’s name on it and is forced to reckon with the possibility that his uncle had his own son murdered. In his search for the truth, Jay learns the harsh reality of what life is like for those living in the slums of Manilla. He also comes to know the many sides of his cousin, his family and himself; none of us are one thing all the time. “We all have the terrible and amazing power to hurt and help, to harm and heal. We all do both throughout our lives.”
“Patron Saints of Nothing,” Ribay’s third novel, is equal parts heartbreaking and soul-healing. With Duterte’s war on drugs as the catalyst for the plot, it brings into sharp relief the lives of those living in the margins of society in the Philippines, yet remains a story of family, loss and redemption that transcends time and place.