Typical American CL

Gish Jen, Author Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) $19.95 (296p) ISBN 978-0-395-54689-5
A wry but compassionate voice and distinctive sensibility animate this accomplished first novel, a darkly humorous account of Chinese immigrants encountering America. Lai Fu Chang comes to the U.S in 1947 to study for his Ph.D. in electrical engineering, changes his name to Ralph in the same impulsive, muddled way he does everything else, neglects to renew his visa and has become a penniless recluse when he is discovered by his older sister, called Theresa in her convent school, and her friend Helen, who have been sent to America to escape the Communists. Ralph marries Helen, and the three become a family who dub themselves the Chinese Yankees, the Chang-kees. Vainglorious and ineffectual, puffed up with domineering pride, Ralph attempts to rule the roost, but it is his self-effacing but resourceful wife and self-sacrificing sister who bring the family through the bad times that befall them after feckless Ralph becomes involved with a millionaire conman who seduces Helen and brings them to the verge of financial ruin. The view of this country through the eyes of outsiders attempting to preserve their own language and traditions while tapping into the American dream of success and riches is the piquant motif that binds the novel--and underscores the protagonists' eventual disillusionment. Jen sums up the two cultures in a brief, apt comparison: ``The way Americans in general like to move around, the Chinese love to hold still; removal is a fall and an exile.'' Her imagery is fresh and startling: ``The sun was huge and low . . . a moongate opening to a hellish garden,'' and her imagination is droll: ``He nodded so emphatically, his sandwich laid a pickle chip.'' But most significantly, Jen proves herself a virtuoso raconteur of the Chinese-American experience. (Mar.)
Reviewed on: 03/04/1991
Release date: 03/01/1991
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