(Reviewed by Judi Clark MAY 28, 2001)
"Beware the life you earn."
William Narciso Paulinha is drinking the watered down Tequila at a seedy bar on Times Square called the Savoy, "a place frequented by hustlers and transvestite hookers way past their prime and by junkies," everything he's afraid of becoming. While reflecting on the things he's been and wondering what he's to be next, Shem C walks into his life.
Shem C is a frustrated writer, who says he's been thrown out of his home after being caught philandering with his father in-law's mistress and thus has lost access to all his wife's money and lifestyle. Now he has a plan for a nasty bit of revenge and a chance for the right hustler to make some good money. But, to pull off this con he needs a Chinese man.
William is Filipino, not Chinese, but close enough to the Asian blind. Shem gives him the Condé Nast House and Garden and Metropolitan Home magazines with post it notes. He also provides a pamphlet on Feng Shui, with a message to "read everything." Caught up, William studies at the library and practices his new Chinese-old-world persona. Then he is brought to a barber, and is soon turned into "one of those people that the whole world is looking to fall in love with." In short order, Master Chao is created, ready to "water their couches, watch them sprout money."
And William is very convincing in his role. These rich social elite are all too ready to reveal their secrets to him and to rely on his wisdom to maintain or increase their wealth. But then, this isn't so hard, as these people will do anything to not take responsibility for their own decisions and actions, as is most clearly seen when Master Chao turns his hand and becomes Fixer Chao. He purposely does Cardie Kerchpoff's house all wrong just because she is a despicable woman. Later, when Cardie's world falls apart, it's easier for her to believe that her husband's leaving has all to do with Master Chao's magic and nothing to do with herself, even though William points out that her husband was having the affair long before he arrived on the scene. To this raging woman, he finally retorts, "Did you think Feng Shui could repair your ugly soul? Did you --"
Whereas the "victims" of Master Chao's scam want to let things happen to them and believe whole heartily in the outside influence, William is aware of his own soul and choices. So much of this novel is about what is good, what is bad and what is valued as good and bad (as well as the unintentional good that can come out of bad and vice versa). To pull this con, William explains to his friend, Devo, that he has to temporarily postpone his plan to be a better human being, just long enough to get some money, then he can resume with being good. This multifaceted relationship between the good and bad is further played out with William's fascination with the beautiful Kendo Yamada, the son of Shem C's mark, Suzy Yamada. But this rich kid, Kendo, turns out to be attracted to the many forms of bad. And the bad is all that he is willing to see and manipulate in William.
While William is acting out this scam, he is also playing out an imagined Agatha Christie-like investigation (his favorite novelist) and trying to figure out why Shem C wants revenge on a very wealthy Suzy Yamada, the obvious target who claims in a magazine that she needs "better Feng Shui," since she is disappointed with her first consultant. But why Suzy Yamada?
If this novel were only about the confidence game that Shem C cooks up, the novel would be interesting and even humorous, but this novel extends far deeper, taking into account the meaning of immigrant experience in America, raising questions of race and privilege, of character and identity and finally, takes a look at the end of the possession laden century. Fixer Chao's staccato like pace often straddles between the two possibilities of a moment -- such as the the stroke of midnight, the dividing point between was has been and what will be. Even the fact that it is set in the last days of the last year of the millennium furthers this notion of what has passed and what is coming.
I enjoyed this novel on every level. Ong is a gifted writer able to load the plot with a gentle momentum, a clever scam, unforgettable (though not always likable) characters and meaning. This books reminds me of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities not in its style but in its excoriating view of the upper-crust society in New York City.
- Amazon readers rating: from 15 reviews
Read Chapter 1 from Fixer Chao at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Bachelor Rat and Symposium in Manila
- Salon.com review of Fixer Chao
- The New York Times review of Fixer Chao
- WashingtonPost.com review of Fixer Chao
- MS NBC review of Fixer Chao
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About the Author:
Han Ong was born and educated in the Philippines and came to the United States as a teenager. He is among the youngest MacArthur Fellows and is the author of several critically acclaimed plays.