"A Long Stay in a Distant Land"
(Reviewed by Debbie Lee Wesselmann SEP 5, 2005)
More often than not, first novels are coming-of-age stories, where a young protagonist matures and recognizes essential truths about himself and the world. In his fine debut novel, Chieh Chieng has written more of a coming-to-terms story. Louis Lum is a recent college graduate working as an underpaid fact-checker at a hot rod magazine, not the kind of position his mother had hoped he would secure.
As the youngest surviving member of "The Lums of Orange County," Louis has a lot of familial baggage. The Lums are cursed by premature and often unusual deaths, the latest being Louis's mother Mirla who died in a car accident when an overworked medical student, Hersey Collins, fell asleep behind the wheel. Louis's father Sonny, who thinks it's a compliment when he says that Mirla was like his own leg, calls Louis every night and threatens to murder Hersey to avenge his loss. Louis does not know how serious his father is about killing Hersey, so he moves in and stays up late with his father, listening to his father's rap records, keeping him from stabbing Hersey, and trying to figure him out. His mother is equally enigmatic. As a devout Baptist, she was obsessed with the idea of salvation––or more accurately, damnation––and spoke vehemently against the Japanese who committed war atrocities against the Chinese and "filched" their kanji characters, though her Japanese-American hairdresser and her Japanese-American close friend were exempt from her wrath since they didn't speak the language.
As if his parents were not enough of a burden, Louis belongs to an entire family of quirky characters: his feisty grandmother Esther who makes lousy turnip cakes and uses curse words when she tells everyone exactly what she thinks; his grandfather Melvin, who returned from World War II unharmed, only to be later killed by an ice cream truck; his young cousin Connie, who expresses a desire for a bright yellow coffin and soon afterward dies from eating an E. coli-infected hamburger at a fast food restaurant; Uncle Phil whom Esther claims invented Benadryl, the family drug of choice; and, most central to the narrative, Uncle Bo, the youngest of Esther and Melvin's three sons, who left the United States to live in Hong Kong and who has severed all communication with the family. Eventually, Esther convinces Louis to travel to Hong Kong to track down Bo to see if he is really "alive and in good health" while Esther watches over Sonny to make sure he doesn't follow through on his threats.
The narrative weaves multiple points-of-view throughout the generations to give a full portrait of this off-beat family. The Lums are an eccentric, unintentionally hilarious lot, caught up more in their American life than in their Chinese ancestry. None of the characters has a memory of China itself, not even Melvin who emigrated to the United States from Hong Kong when he was seven. Louis speaks Cantonese so badly that, for his whole life, he has been unintentionally calling his father "Old Bean" instead of "Old Man." Middle-aged Sonny is obsessed with rap music and African-American culture. Matriarch Esther cannot cook decent Chinese food, and what's left of the younger generation (just Louis and his real estate selling cousin Mick) is more caught up in making ends meet than history. When Bo leaves to live in Hong Kong, he might as well be traveling to another planet. Despite the Lums' distance from the country of their ancestors, they both embrace it and rebel against it. A young Bo refuses to eat his rice in a bowl and with chopsticks because the American way is more "efficient" and yet, to find his own place in the world, he emigrates to Hong Kong. Louis treats his childhood Cantonese lessons lightly but continues to believe he speaks it better than "so-so okay." Melvin enlists in the military to fight for the United States and refuses to accept his parents' arguments that China is his country.
Chieh Chieng brings all this together with a dry wit and an eye for the absurd. The understated humor never demeans his characters and instead makes them more lovable despite their unorthodox approaches to life. When teenage Mirla decides that Sonny might not be good enough for her, she tells him that she will continue dating him if he passes an upper level math exam. Dubbed by the local paper as "Mirla 'The Human Abacus' Ho," Mirla's math skills are far beyond Sonny's paltry ones. Sonny is hopelessly in love, though, and will do anything to keep her, so he agrees. The first question is a three-part complex word problem about a motor scooter and the forces at work on it. Instead of trying to answer mathematically, Sonny writes "(a) Who's riding the scooter? (b) Why not drive a car? (c) Why does there need to be air and road resistance? Why does there need to be a scooter?" Other questions provoke similar responses: "Nobody can throw a baseball faster than two hundred fifty miles per hour. Maybe a very strong Martian, but not a human being." Mirla, who fully expects Sonny to fail the test and for her to be done with him, is won over by his miserable pronouncement that he answered every question incorrectly and by his charmingly hopeless answers.
Louis shares a kinship to his favorite childhood television character, the morality boy named Toshi who was always grateful for being punished by his stern father. As a child, Louis is perplexed by Toshi's willingness to submit again and again to being spanked off-screen, but, as an adult, Louis comes to accept that perhaps the peculiar torture his own family offers isn't as bad as he once believed. While the final pages hover near sentimentality, Chieng's honest affection for his characters never wavers. The result is an entertaining, heartfelt book about one family's oddities and how those quirks come to define them.
- Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- A Long Stay in a Distant Land (April 2005)
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About the Author:
Chieh Chieng was born in Hong Kong and moved to Orange County, California, at the age of seven. He graduated from the creative writing program at the University of California, Irvine, and has been published in Glimmer Train, The Threepenny Review, Santa Monica Review and the Antioch Review.