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Book Review : Entertaining Action Novel About Yesterday's China

July 13, 1987|CAROLYN SEE

Shanghai Tango by William Overgard (St. Martins: $17.95; 307 pages)

Some places on Earth are fantasy "power spots": Paris in the '20s, San Francisco in the '60s, Shanghai in the '30s. What they were like--"reality" is--by now, almost totally irrelevant. They have become the literary equivalent of certain religions: whether they "really" existed or not is far less important in the final analysis than what we believe about them; the stories we tell about them.

In this case, the Shanghai (and Nanking and Sian) are places where tight-lipped missionaries turn their backs on needy wayfarers; where "romance" is treated with ironic detachment. (The tango in question here is danced nightly at Frisco's by a hoydenish Irish girl, Lola Ryan, trained in the vaudevillian three-a-day performance tradition, and her surly ape, Ramon, who has been the economic mainstay of the Ryan family for 40 years because of his prowess at the tango. His timing is perfect; his dancing more than debonair.)

Flash and Dash

William Overgard's "Shanghai" is not, then, about high idealism or the seductive perfume of romance. It is about friendship and adventure, flash and dash, "the entertainment quarter where the sudden intensity of light increased in brilliant jumps of neon and electric bulbs, culminating in the clash and blink of a hundred invitations and advertisements, each canceling the other out in kilowatt confusion."

This "Shanghai" is about the folly of war--more gunned-down bodies pile up through this narrative than discarded paper cups on Santa Monica Pier during a three-day holiday weekend--but the author is so stubbornly fond of his characters that again and again they elude their fate. The reader has the fun of the battle scenes without ever having to mourn the loss of his favorite characters.

The very best thing about "Shanghai Tango" is that it's crammed full of research on the China of that time. The down side of this is that if you know and care less about Chinese generals baptizing their troops by fire hose, or White Russian refugees pulling rickshaws, or compradors, or why the city's currency was called "Nex," or Jaw Bone beer, or the Triads, or the notorious Green Gang, or the glamorous Bund lined with "godowns" full of contraband--with the elusive ghosts of Mei-ling Soong and Anna May Wong presiding over all, you may not love this book.

If you do love all that--if that "Kilowatt confusion" means everything to you, if your lifetime (dream) ambition is to become an Old China Hand, this book is a summer gift wrapped in red paper.

This is a book for really smart people to take to the beach--or better yet--to take to the veranda overlooking the beach at dusk, wearing your white linen suit to set off your becoming tan.

Dedicated to Cartoonist

"Shanghai Tango" is dedicated to Milton Caniff ("who invented my China"), and yes, these characters might have come from his old comic strip, Terry and the Pirates. Besides plucky Lola Ryan and her loyal ape, Ramon, we can easily learn to love--from the West--Adrian Reed, a former polo-playing American who's come to Shanghai to restore his father's reputation and find a lost fortune in gold; Warren Bodine, a pesky Irish Marine whose wacko racism is as large as his wiry body is small; Col. Gibb, a drunken English pensioner, who has fought in every battle his Empire has engaged in during the last 50 years.

On the Oriental side, the "amused, intelligent" Marshall Yu (who long ago swindled Adrian's father, but whose own son, now, has gone over to the Communist side and is nipping at his heels), and, from Japan, the humorless but perversely lovable Capt. Sato, here in Shanghai on vague assignment as a spy, assisted with fanatical heroism by Sgt. Max Masaki, whose family in ancient times were genuine samurai.

The enormous appeal of this book--beyond the idiosyncratic scholarship, the endearing characters, rests on its plot; its very elegant battle scenes, and finally its very gentle homilies about nationalism in general and racism in particular.

In "Shanghai Tango" the Japanese are scandalized by the Chinese, who are scandalized by the English, who are scandalized by the Americans, who are scandalized by (and half in love with) all the Orientals. The Ordos-Mongols are scandalized by the whole lot. With that attitude, mayhem and ultra "kilowatt confusion" are bound to result. Something to think about--this summer on the beach.

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