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Steer Toward Rock A Novel Fae Myenne Ng Hyperion: 256 pp., $23.95

June 22, 2008|Marisa Silver | Marisa Silver is the author, most recently, of "The God of War."

AS RECENT work by Ha Jin, Junot Diaz and Jhumpa Lahiri attest, the immigrant experience is an essential story for our time. Issues of race and social class, long the thematic fodder of novelists, have become more complex with the explosion of immigrant communities. The prime American theme of identity has become political and moral, as native and immigrant alike confront what it means to be the "other" to those who live next door to you. Fae Myenne Ng entered this landscape 15 years ago with her much-heralded first novel, "Bone," the story of a girl living in San Francisco's Chinatown and caught between the cloistered, old-world ways of her family and her desire to remake her life in the image of modern immigrants. It was a moving and honest book, told in a youthful voice devoid of literary flourish and filled with insight and plain yet surprising truths. In "Steer Toward Rock," Ng takes us to the same Chinatown in an earlier time, the McCarthy era and the turbulent 1960s, offering a more poetic, imagistic and ultimately deeper investigation into the dark and complex heart of the immigrant experience.

The novel's hero is Jack Moon Szeto, a man whose place in "the Flowery Kingdom," as Chinese immigrants unironically refer to America, is as tenuous as his false name. He is a "paper son," sold by his poor Chinese parents to a man named Yi-Tung "Gold" Szeto, a Chinatown gangster whose wife is barren and cannot provide him with heirs. Gold's "fatherhood" is purely functional, and Jack is essentially indentured to him as a butcher in one of his business establishments. In addition, Jack must marry a "fake" wife -- Ilin Cheung, whom Gold wants to bring into the country to make his mistress so that she can provide him with "legitimate" children.

It's a complicated arrangement, becoming even more tangled when Jack, a romantic, falls in love with Joice Qwan, a lost soul who does not return his ardor. When Joice becomes pregnant with Jack's child, she still refuses to marry him. Jack, believing he can win her love if he rids himself of his false identity and his debt to Gold, cooperates with the Chinese Confession Program, a U.S. initiative undertaken to prevent communists from entering the country. As part of the deal, Jack must finger Gold as his "paper father." Gold is deported, but the heroic gesture misfires: Gold's henchmen exact violent retribution, and Joice continues to refuse him. Ultimately, she abandons their daughter and disappears altogether, leaving Jack to raise the child.

The convoluted plot speaks to the extraordinary circumstances of immigrants whose lives are at once pulled back to the traditions of their homeland and pushed ahead into a world where new customs and ways of living prevail. Ng depicts Chinatown almost without reference to the other San Francisco that exists merely blocks away, giving us a visceral sense of the community's life. When the "grass widows," whose husbands have become migrant farm workers, go to Jack to buy their weekly meat, we see how deeply the traditions still hold. "Every first Tuesday of the month, a wife in green came in for a lamb heart. . . . Why lamb? I wanted to know. Lamb warms the blood, she told me. My husband works in Alaska and when he returns, he needs the heat."

The book is suffused with this straightforward yet poetic evocation of old-world beliefs. Jack adheres to them too. "Every man needed an ancestor and every ancestor needed a descendant," he says of the false paternal relationship he's been sold into. "Paper or blood, I paid my respects. Every New Year's, I visited the Father with sweets and good wishes. Every Harvest Moon Festival, I delivered a box of double yolk moon cakes and on the solstice, I brought the Father a sack of winter oranges. This was the proper ceremony and I performed it."

But he has mixed feelings about these obligations, calling them "my Confucian curse." The bifurcated life is central to Ng's themes: that in a strange world, tradition is both solace and burden and the immigrant must forge a new identity both within and outside it. In Jack's struggle to renounce his false relationship with Gold so he can grab hold of love, he is dealing with the question of what the true self is in a world that demands that identity be fungible. Who are we when we leave our homeland and remake ourselves in the interests of progress? What is lost? What is gained?

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