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BOOK REVIEW

Bitter, humorous tales of Chinese immigrants

By Julie Wittes Schlack
January 9, 2010

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In the opening story of “A Good Fall,’’ Ha Jin’s newest collection, the nameless protagonist muses, “I used to believe that in the United States you could always reshape your relationships with the people back home -- you could restart your life on your own terms.’’

That quest -- and its elusiveness -- forms the thematic backbone of this book. Every story is set in the Queens, N.Y., neighborhood of Flushing, home to a large population of Asian immigrants, and all offer evocative snapshots of the lives of contemporary first-generation Chinese immigrants. Ha Jin’s protagonists are caught between the financial needs of the families they’ve left behind and the demands of keeping themselves afloat, between the powerful hold of their cultural legacy and their desire for reinvention, between the false and real promises of freedom.

For Tian Chu, protagonist of “In the Crossfire’’ and a naturalized US citizen, life becomes unbearable when his mother comes to visit from China. Demanding and judgmental, she is in continuous conflict with his wife, Connie, a nursing student who wants to defer having children until after she completes her degree. Unable to please one woman without infuriating the other, he ultimately takes an unexpected measure to get his mother to leave. The story is broadly comic, but its poignant final paragraph sweeps aside the stereotypes it has propagated to reveal the naked hearts beneath them.

At the other end of the assimilation spectrum are the prostitutes living in “The House Behind a Weeping Cherry.’’ Indebted to the Croc, the gangster who smuggled her into the country for an exorbitant fee, a Vietnamese girl named Huong sells her body to pay back her smuggler and to send money to her parents and brother. Equally without options is Gauchin, the monk and martial arts teacher who is the protagonist of the book’s title story. The master of the monastery at which he has worked for two years refuses to pay Gauchin his salary when his visa expires, appropriates his passport, and makes it clear that Gauchin’s only choice is to return to China. Sick, unable to speak English, and penniless, Gauchin discovers opportunity in the idiosyncratic sympathies of the Chinese immigrant community, and Ha Jin averts melodrama and turns to humor, instead.

In his novels, “Waiting’’ and “War Trash,’’ Ha Jin’s languid pacing was essential to the story. The traditional narrative arc was so stretched as to be almost flat, with very little unfolding over a long stretch of time, but in those books, that was the point.

The short stories in “ A Good Fall’’ are similarly airy in their structure, and on first reading, many of them feel insubstantial. The stories are fluid; Ha Jin simply drops us into his characters’ lives, then levitates us back out of them. Although some are forgettable, other stories will take up quiet residence in your consciousness, shining a light into lives that too often go unseen.

Julie Wittes Schlack is a Cambridge-based author and facilitator of online communities.

A GOOD FALL Ha Jin

Pantheon

240 pp. $24.95