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BOOK REVIEW

Hunt for a kidney is funny and touching

By Kevin O'Kelly
May 26, 2009
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LARRY'S KIDNEY, By Daniel Asa Rose, William Morrow, 320 pp., $25.99

What do you do when you get a call from a black sheep cousin you haven't heard from in years? And he calls to tell you he's dying? And to tell you that maybe, just maybe, you can help save his life by helping him get a new kidney? There's one catch, though. The odds of getting a kidney are much better in China than in the United States. Your cousin doesn't travel much, so can you go with him to help him make his way around a strange country? Never mind that you haven't been to China in 25 years and the last time you were there you ended up in jail.

And did I mention that it's illegal in China to perform organ transplants on foreigners?

If you're PEN-award winning writer Daniel Asa Rose, you say yes, even though you're not sure why.

Thus begins "Larry's Kidney," one of the funniest, most touching and bizarre nonfiction books I've read in some time, in which two middle-age men who haven't spoken in years bond over securing an illegal organ transplant.

Daniel Asa Rose is a remarkably talented writer, but he's also quite lucky. In itself the quest for a Chinese kidney would have made a good book, but taking a medical road trip with a character like Larry - that is writer's gold. Whether explaining to Rose that he's going to pick up a mail-order bride since they're in China anyway ("It would have been fiscally irresponsible of me to shell out for a ticket to come all this way and not get my money's worth. Doesn't a twofer sound like a better deal?") or dictating his business correspondence to Rose ("Enclosed you will find the business plan for my latest proposal . . . It is my belief that novelty condoms printed with Chinese-cookie-style fortunes could really strike pay dirt with the gay demographic"), you're aware of one fact above all else: Larry is somebody who should live as long as possible, if only for the entertainment value.

And as Rose gets to know his outrageous long-estranged cousin again and how to get an illegal operation performed, he also becomes reacquainted with a country he hasn't seen in a quarter-century. "Larry's Kidney" conveys the strange, chaotic, contradictory nature of Chinese life in all its stupefying reality: world-class hospitals that don't serve meals to patients; pollution so thick the air is a health hazard; American fast food places side-by-side with supermarkets whose floors are covered with animal bones; cab rides terrifyingly indistinguishable from kidnappings; and government agents paid to spy on you who turn out to be indispensable friends.

It's a tribute to Rose's talent that he can so seamlessly merge the funny and the serious in this book. And all the comic elements aside, this is a very serious book. It's about the lengths you'll go to for someone you care about. "Larry's Kidney" will doubtless enrage many readers who will see it as the story of two Ugly Americans treating Chinese internal organs as just another cheap developing-world commodity. But as a veteran American China hand tells Rose, "No point in second-guessing yourself; you saved your cousin's life."

To sum up: like Larry, Daniel Asa Rose went for a twofer. He saved his cousin's life and got a great book out of it as well.

Kevin O'Kelly is a regular reviewer for the Globe. He has a blog at www.notesandcomments1.blogspot.com.

LARRY'S KIDNEY By Daniel Asa Rose

William Morrow, 320 pp., $25.99

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