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Set against the backdrop of the riots sparked by the beating of African American motorist Rodney King, Vietnam vet and reporter Harry Hudson wanders the city to forget his troubled past. Trying to cope with the posttraumatic stress disorder that has plagued him since his military tour, the overweight, depressed, and sex-obsessed Hudson stumbles through the underbelly of South Central LA, where he meets Mama Thuy, a Vietnamese woman struggling to run a Navy bar in a tough Long Beach ...
Set against the backdrop of the riots sparked by the beating of African American motorist Rodney King, Vietnam vet and reporter Harry Hudson wanders the city to forget his troubled past. Trying to cope with the posttraumatic stress disorder that has plagued him since his military tour, the overweight, depressed, and sex-obsessed Hudson stumbles through the underbelly of South Central LA, where he meets Mama Thuy, a Vietnamese woman struggling to run a Navy bar in a tough Long Beach neighborhood, and Kelly Crenshaw, an African American prostitute whose husband is in prison. As both women give Hudson a new outlook on life and faith, he discovers the shared humanity of all members of society. Suspenseful and thrilling, this noir-style novel is also a detailed character study of victims of racial, social, and economical tensions.
Posted March 5, 2011
When I was growing up in Los Angeles in the early 1960's, there were two places where I could see a bit of raw life, Dodger Stadium and the Redondo Beach Pier.
At Dodger Stadium I saw a man get hit in the head by a foul ball and taken out on a stretcher, two drunk men and a woman start a fist fight and be thrown out by police, and another drunk man dump a tray of beers on my sister's lap as he stumbled back to his seat. At the Redondo Beach Pier I saw leathery fishermen hook silver fish and surfers dodge the pilings and smelled the grease of fish being fried in rough seafood joints.
Reading Michael Harris' The Chieu Hoi Saloon reminded me of these ungentrified places. Harris' protagonist, Harry Hudson, could have passed through either of them as he tried to flee his history of personal failure.
When the novel opens, he has just run away from his family in Oregon, where while drunk he had failed to save a daughter from drowning. He ends up in Los Angeles where he works on a newspaper copy desk. Harry stutters, as does his life, and while he makes various efforts to overcome stuttering he satisfies other psychic needs through drink and sexual obsessions. Ironically, in his exploration of bars, swingers clubs, porn theaters he finds people--prostitutes, bar owners and patrons, and criminals-- who both to take him in and exploit his relative wealth. Harry begins to share with these "friends" the inescapable bonds of family, both constructed and inherited, and sees that no matter how down on your luck, or wanted by the police, you can't escape an obligation to try to hold your family together, despite the odds for failure.
Michael Harris, a veteran LA reporter, uses the atmosphere of early 1990's Los Angeles to weave disparate lives together into a rarely seen portrait of the city and the troubled souls that struggle to make it home.
Posted December 18, 2010
Harry Hudson, the hero of Michael Harris's The Chieu Hoi Saloon, reminds me of other hulkingly desperate, endlessly searching, secretly intellectual loners of literature. I think especially Thomas Wolfe's Eugene Gant, hurling himself into "immense and swarming" New York City. Perhaps it is only the outsider, the tortured seeker for something that couldn't be found in his nowhere home town, who can truly plumb a great city's depths.
In The Chieu Hoi Saloon, a huge book in which literary meets noir, it's 1980s Los Angeles, a city festering for the eruption that will follow the Rodney King verdict. Harry Hudson, who has fled/deserted a small town up in Oregon, a failed marriage and a little son, stutters so badly that he can barely talk to anyone but himself. His copy-desk job in a dying newspaper world leaves him plenty of time to shadow box with his past, to re-live the moment when, in a young man's "drowsiness and fear," he killed a harmless old Vietnamese, and the even longer moment, fifteen years later, when he was too drunk to fish his little daughter out of the deep end of the swimming pool. With these memories before him, he knows he "has no right ever to feel good again."
Los Angles, as seen here, seems to be a good place to have come if you are looking to run but have no real hope of hiding. Harry Hudson-as he's always called-seeks to find himself, or lose himself, in one dive after another, joints where signs such as "SWINGERS WELCOME" and "ONE AT A TIME ONLY IN THE TOILET" tell you all you need to know. Part-time hookers on their way down are willing to love Harry Hudson a little, accept his money and his support, and he at times he becomes so involved with their lives that the book sometimes begins to speak, successfully I think, in their voices, opening up a second window onto the life of the city.
Does our hero find redemption? Let me not say.
But there is one oasis of hope in the book, the Chieu Hoi (exact translation, I think, to sicken and die) run by a woman called Mama Thuy. Her life has been tough too; a young girl during the Vietnam War, she also left behind a son to make her escape. Still she remains whole: beautiful, tough, decent, courageous. The disreputable crew of saloon regulars-those who have long since "lost the ability to control their behavior well enough to pass for normal citizens" -- are all in love with her, would lay down their lives for her in a minute.
The Chieu Hoi, though it's called a saloon, is really, Harry Hudson, knows a church, a "congregation of fools, of incomplete people gathering around Mama Thuy in hope that, somehow, in this one place, some wholeness might "rub off."
Posted December 9, 2010
Harry Hudson 's adventures take place mostly on dark streets and in crummy rooms in rough neighborhoods the year of the Rodney King beating and subsequent trials and riots. They include being shot in a hold-up and taking a bizarre but bizarrely believable drive with an armed enemy in the back seat of his car. Meanwhile, everyone uses Harry, but also appreciates him as a friend, while he wants to be loved and maybe married, and above all to forget the deaths of an old villager in Vietnam and of his small daughter much more recently. Harry is a sad, moving, eminently worthwhile man. It's a wonderful engrossing book with an ending that, if not exactly upbeat, leaves the doors open.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 28, 2004
Mike Harris' novel has all the brave force and arresting power of Celine and Dostoevsky in its descent into the depths of human anguish and that peculiar gallantry of the moral soul that is caught up in irrational self-punishment at its own failings. Yet, unlike the pessimism of a Celine, Harris's tale manages an amazing and transforming affirmation--the novel floats above all its pain on pure delight in the great varieties of the human comedy. It is a story of those sainted souls who live in bars and saloons, retreating from various defeats but representing every variety of the human condition, told with such vividness and sensitivity that it is impossible not to care deeply about these characters from our own waking dreams. In an age less obsessed by sentimentality and mawkish 'uplift,' this book would be studied and celebrated and emulated.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 17, 2004
Air travelers speak of 'fly-over country,' that vast, anonymous, interior swath of our nation that most of us see only from 37,000 feet and forget when our attention is distracted by the beverage cart. Mike Harris' Chieu Hoi Saloon resides in kindred landscape: the urban areas that most of us glimpse only from a car window, when a detour takes us from our familiar path. A glance down a side street reveals 15-foot store fronts: tattoo parlors, palm readers, two-chair barber shops, nail salons, and a bar that just might be the Chieu Hoi Saloon. For a moment, you wonder about the people who live here. Who are they? What brought them here? What holds them? Then the light changes, and the guy in the truck behind you leans on the horn. You return to your neatly circumscribed life, and these other lives are forgotten. Harris' novel is not a walk on the wild side. It's about inhabiting, not passing through. Reading it will change the way you see the urban drive-through country.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 3, 2012
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Posted March 27, 2012
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