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First Fiction

April 29, 2001|MARK ROZZO

FIXER CHAO By Han Ong Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 386 pp., $24

Han Ong's bitter and brilliant first novel traces the dubious rise of William Narciso Paulinha, a Port Authority rent boy who becomes Master Chao, celebrated feng shui adviser to New York's rich and gullible. It's not a stretch to think of "Fixer Chao" as a slightly rabid update of Melville's "The Confidence Man': This furious--and occasionally infuriating--book is relentless in its exposure of the frauds that fuel the American Dream, irate and inchoate as it takes on race and origin and sexual orientation, self-consciously microcosmic in its exploration of class and, to the last, baffling, ambiguous and nearly euphoric in its anger. William, a Filipino, is coaxed into becoming the Chinese Master Chao by an embittered writer intent on meting out revenge to the Park Avenue upper crust; it's unclear why William assents to becoming this New Age parody of the inscrutable Oriental, but the move seems to satisfy any number of desires: immediate financial gain, the satisfaction of fleecing the establishment and the masochistic confirmation of his fears about race. William's job is to do "bad" feng shui: Put mirrors in front of beds, block the flow of chi, wreak havoc. Who cares if feng shui itself is a sham? William is at once canny and clueless as he confronts these rarefied interiors, allowing Ong to gleefully skewer the rich and their totems of power. On Conde Nast: "If I were Agatha Christie and wanted a character with the dubious air of fake aristocracy, I might come up with that name." On Madonna: "the head mall girl." William, naturally, is as seduced by his glamorous victims as they are by him; in "Fixer Chao," confidence games cut both ways, and scammers, William included, can end up scamming themselves.

*

TALKING IN THE DARK By Laura Glen Louis Harcourt: 210 pp., $23

In her debut collection, Laura Glen Louis offers eight stories full of startling disconnections even as she's probing the unlikely ways her characters--often Chinese Americans living in the Bay Area--have a way of hooking up. In "Fur," an attractive bank teller seduces an elderly gentleman over a series of transactions, lavish dim sums and promises not quite articulated. "Her Slow and Steady" tells of a couple continually drawn together and torn apart in the aftermath of their baby's crib death. The teen heroine of "Thirty Yards" needs a restraining order against an ardent Chinese admirer, while her desire for a multicultural American boy makes her father equally wary. And, in "The Quiet at the Bottom of the Pool," the best of this collection, a suburban mom allows herself to become the sexual prey of her daughter's boyfriend. Throughout, there's a sense of emotional disorientation underscored by shifting narratives and unexplained events. As the enigmatic narrator of "Diving the Waters" puts it, "Water, all around. Where is north? Which way to land?" Although Louis keeps things together for most of the book, this final story is like a multi-car pile-up on the Bay Bridge, compromising Louis' admirable aims and leaving the rubbernecking reader to wonder what's going on.

*

SISTER CRAZY By Emma Richler Pantheon: 216 pp., $22

This slim, elegant debut from Emma Richler, the daughter of Canadian writer Mordecai Richler, presents seven episodes chronicling the coming-of-adolescence of a girl named Jemima Weiss. Throughout these essayistic fictions--which tend to involve more rumination than storytelling--Jemima unfolds as a creature of voracious imagination and curiosity, whose childhood, as befitting the comfortably intellectual Weiss home, is told through the various tomboyish scholarly obsessions that filter her childhood experience: Hollywood westerns, Action Man toys (including the hilariously jive Talking Man), World War II, single malt Scotch, Arthurian legend, Carl Sagan. In cataloging these preoccupations, Jem (as she's called) manages to capture a generally mirthful household full of "strong hearts and nerves not yet ravaged by artificial stimulants and full-blown grown-up emotions." Still, there's some weirdness: Jem's little sister Heather--who Jem thinks might be synesthetic or just plain crazy--has a morbid fear of different foods touching on her dinner plate; eldest brother Ben, with his rapacious theorizing on literary archetypes and quantum physics, is pretty intense; and Jem herself hints at an improper attachment to her other brother as well as later brushes with depression. "Sister Crazy" is restless at times, but it is also luminescent; as Jem puts it, "Light is smart, it is bright, it finds the briefest path by testing out all possible paths ... roaming every which way until it finds the right one."

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