Leung gingerly reacquaints an estranged father and son who travel through China in this sagacious and lyrical debut novel. When Westen Chan's American mother died, his Chinese father, Xin, left him with his Caucasian great-aunt and uncle in rural Washington State, promising one day to return and take his son on a journey to Xin's village in China. More than 20 years have passed when Xin's invitation finally arrives. Westen is 32, but in many ways still childlike: insecure, resentful and stubborn. A virgin, he at least partially blames his romantic difficulties, with both men and women, on being abandoned by his father. Xin, now elderly, ill and trying to cope with his own guilt, is unsure if he can reconnect with his son. The two haltingly reintroduce and explain themselves, and while on the trip, Xin confides in Westen about the hardship he left behind in his village and shares ancient traditions. The stories of the two men, told in an alternating first person, become increasingly gripping: "Be careful about judging people without knowing all their history," says Xin, who also bears an unopened letter from Westen's mother to her son. Throughout, Leung handles the complex father-son relationship with care, and does a marvelous job negotiating the two men's fraught cultural and emotional legacies. (June)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Lost Menby Brian Leung
Westen Gray was just eight years old when his Caucasian mother died and his Chinese father, Xin, sent him away to be raised by her relatives. More than twenty years later, after a lifetime of estrangement, Westen receives an invitation from his father to travel with him to China. So it is that two strangers—a father and a son—travel halfway around the
Westen Gray was just eight years old when his Caucasian mother died and his Chinese father, Xin, sent him away to be raised by her relatives. More than twenty years later, after a lifetime of estrangement, Westen receives an invitation from his father to travel with him to China. So it is that two strangers—a father and a son—travel halfway around the world to a land that one of them knows intimately and the other has never seen. The future of their relationship hinges on the trip and on the contents of a sealed letter written by Westen’s mother before her death—a letter that threatens to answer the lifelong question neither of them has dared to ask.
This debut novel (after Leung's highly regarded story collection, World Famous Love Acts) is an emotionally austere tale of male identity and the lost relationship between father and son that provides a context for questioning the many roles that life presents us. The novel alternately examines what it means to be Chinese, a father, a son, and gay. The descriptions of life in China and Northwest's Columbia River Gorge provide a rich counterpoint to the inner turmoil and failed relationships of the celibate son. The emotional vacuity of the absent father, the death of his wife, and his separation from his son are described with a distance that is frustrating; the attempt to maintain a sense of narrative decorum leaves out too much for real satisfaction, though this may be precisely the point. Still, the deft technique and sometimes brilliant language succeed in balancing the lightly shaded rendering of father and son. In the end, the elegant prose and the insightful treatment of difficult subject matter make this work suitable for public and academic libraries.
—Dan Chaon, author of You Remind Me of Me
“Lost Men is a kind of mystery novel, where the crime is being too proud to be a father, or a son, and the criminals find each other one last time. It's about lives I know but have never seen written down anywhereChinese, American, gay, straight. A quietly masterful first novel.”
—Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh
“Lost Men is an accomplished first novel by the author of World Famous Love Acts (2004), an award-winning book of short stories. Written in the plainest of language, Lost Men is a powerful, universal story of inchoate fathers and sons.”
—Thomas Gaughan (Booklist)
“Grab a box of Kleenex and your comfy mom jeans–you'll be settling in once you pick up Brian Leung's lovely novel. It's an emotional story about a father and son's struggling relationship, where main character Westen Chan is asked by his estranged dad to visit him in China for some much-needed bonding. The beautifully written story is also about Westen coming to grips with his mixed heritage, and his father struggling to get back lost time. Sniff. We'll be fine.”
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Read an Excerpt
Lost MenA Novel
By Brian Leung
Shaye Areheart BooksCopyright © 2007 Brian Leung
All right reserved.
The Age of Regret, years ago, far away from the now. Westen Chan has not seen his father for months, will not see him for decades. He is still not used to being around his great-uncle Cane. The two of them sit in the cab of the idling pickup. His uncle pats him hard on the head. "Your aunt Catherine thinks this is a good idea." She has sent them off to meet the only other Chinese in the county so Westen will know he isn't alone.
The pair step out of the truck. Westen is small, even for eight. He is dark-haired and olive-skinned; people guess that he's a mix, perhaps even Spanish or Black Irish, but never Chinese. His uncle Cane is tall with heaped shoulders, a lumbering walk, and a bristly head of white hair. His face and arms are pink and splotchy from too many years of sun.
Westen and his uncle walk between long, tin-sided buildings, the clucking hum of chickens sifting over them. It is the egg ranch of Parker Cheung. The late morning is damp, misty, and the pair head toward the covered loading dock where Parker and other men are stacking egg flats on racks. Parker's face is obscured by the bill of his sweat-stained cap, but when he turns to say hello, he reveals his Chinese face, the broad roundness of it anchored by a wide but compressed nose. Westenis both cautious and pleased to see a Chinese, someone who shares the features of his father.
"Cheung," Westen's uncle says.
"Cane," Parker returns, lifting his cap to wipe a plaid sleeve across his brow.
"This little fella is my great-nephew Westen. What do you think about that?"
Parker reaches out his hand, and Westen steps forward, returning a hopeful smile while taking the man's palm. He is surprised at how rough it is, and then, in an instant, is taken back by the sourness of Parker's odor. He lets go of the man's hand and stands again next to his uncle.
"What can I do you for?"
"Catherine thought we ought to come by and see if you might give Westen a tour of your operation."
"If you like eggs and chicken shit, I've got plenty to show you."
The two men shake with laughter, but Westen remains still. This man is not like his father at all. Not like any Chinese he's ever met. This man, in fact, is exactly like his uncle Cane. Suddenly there is a woman's voice, and the three turn toward a house not too far off, a gray vacancy of smoke rising from its chimney. "Pak. Pak," the woman calls. She is leaning out of the window, and Westen notices she is Chinese too. "Bring me dead chicken," she yells.
Parker looks at Westen and his uncle. "You two want to stay for lunch?" While the men laugh again, Westen thinks he definitely does not want to eat here. Holding up a cracked index finger bent slightly above the last knuckle as if broken years ago, Parker continues. "Give me a minute," he says, stepping away and into one of the chicken houses. The ranch is busy with other men walking between the buildings; it gurgles with the sound of hundreds of hens, then a roused clucking that Westen recognizes as the sound of fear. A dull thwack stills the clamor and Parker returns holding a white, beheaded chicken by its feet. It hangs at his side oozing a beaded drool of blood, which drips to the dark ground like glowing red candle wax.
"Say," Parker begins, extending the chicken toward Westen, "how about running this up to the wife, little man?" The bird smells and doesn't look nearly as white close up. Westen checks his uncle for direction because he does not want to touch this dead thing.
"Go about it," his uncle says. "Cheung and me got a meeting with Mr. Daniels for a few minutes."
Parker offers a conspiratorial chuckle. "It's Mr. Beam that's waiting on us." He looks at Westen. "Just carry it on up to the wife and tell her I promised you a cookie." Westen takes the chicken by its leathery feet, holding it as far away from his body as possible.
"Go on now," his uncle prods. "And best not to tell Mrs. Cheung about the meeting." He winks at Parker and the pair head inside the egg building.
Alone, Westen is aware of the sound of water falling. He looks up the hill where he is to deliver the chicken. The white house stares back at him from two red-curtained windows. To one side, half a football field away and through a stand of pine, he spots the wide lip of a waterfall, the dimension revealing itself as an unbroken expanse. The constancy of sound is nearly overwhelming. In front of this wall of falling water a thick, dark bridge extends itself, dead-ending at a cliff. The scene gives him the odd sensation of being distant and present all at once. A person in blue, a woman he guesses, sits on the railing, dangling her feet over the side. Her body gestures forward and back, clearly at ease with the precarious height. Westen has the impulse to call out to tell her to be careful, but she is much too far away to hear him.
Once at the house, Westen stands in front of the door thinking he might just drop the chicken and run. Before he can make a decision the door swings open. Inside, a plump woman with dyed hair and narrow black eyes brings her hand to her face in mock surprise. She is the one who called down to Parker for the chicken. "Your auntie say you come today," she offers without introduction, looking Westen up and down, nodding while she takes the bird. "Okay. I guess you Quang Dong Wa?"
Westen grins. He knows the meaning. "My father is."
"No. Say you Cantonese."
Sensing this is not a rhetorical command, he complies and accepts Mrs. Cheung's invitation to enter the house. She is the kind of Chinese he remembers, her assertive manner and broken English acting as a temporary balm, though he wonders how it's possible she and Parker are married. The house is surprisingly bright, filled with books and chicken-shaped knickknacks of all sorts. Westen and Mrs. Cheung pass a sliding glass door offering a view through the trees of the bridge and waterfall.
"You sit here," Mrs. Cheung says as they reach the kitchen. She taps a chrome chair with yellow vinyl upholstery that matches the Formica tabletop. The chicken is flopped into the sink. "I clean outside in a minute." She sits opposite Westen, hands folded in front of her, embroidered orange maple leaves on her sweater vest, each surrounded by small beveled rhinestones that could be rain or sunlight breaking through a fall canopy. "Your auntie ask me talk to you. Why you not a happy boy?"
"I'm happy," Westen says, but he knows there is no conviction in it.
Mrs. Cheung places her hands flat on the table and stands. "Wait," she says, exiting the kitchen. When she returns she is holding a pad of paper and a large red book with gold Chinese lettering. She asks Westen a series of questions: his birth date, the time he was born, how to spell his first name. With each query she consults the book and writes on the pad of paper. Her work is certain and officious, as if she is interviewing a job applicant, her lips thinned in tight concentration. Westen watches her blunt fingers press the pencil, embedding dense Chinese characters into the paper. Mrs. Cheung makes a single nod with each notation. In a quiet moment when she is double-checking her work Westen watches a drop of water collect at the lip of the kitchen faucet until it relents to gravity. "Maybe I should go find Uncle Cane," he says when the drop falls.
Mrs. Cheung looks up from her pad. "They drinking. Don't worry. I take you home."
Westen knows he will not see his uncle for the rest of the day.
"You will visit China," Mrs. Cheung says, pointing to her math. "But I think you will be an unhappy boy and an unhappy man until then."
Westen cannot comprehend the forecast, but he makes an attempt. "China will make me happy?"
"No," she says emphatically. "Nothing make anyone happy. But I going to help." She reaches into her pocket and retrieves four items: a thin red ribbon, matches, a candle, and a palm-sized box covered in worn blue velvet. She ties the ribbon around the box, leaving a bow the size and shape of a small butterfly. "My mother give me before I come to U.S. I give you now."
There is something about this gesture that comforts Westen as he watches Mrs. Cheung light the candle and drip dense wax onto the knot of the bow. "My mother do this too. She tell me I'm unhappy girl after my father die." The pair sit quietly looking at this new red-winged creation sitting atop the blue box. "Now you open in China only at right moment," Mrs. Cheung continues. "Maybe you be happy. Before that, no good. You tell someone, no good. This only your box."
"When will this happen?"
"Wait for your father like I wait for Mr. Cheung," she says. "He come back. You put away until then. Be a good boy and remember to listen to your auntie. She love you."
Westen feels a flush of heat and hope at the prospect of his father's return, but he wonders just how long he is going to have to wait. Picking up Mrs. Cheung's box, he carefully feels its weight. "Is it magic?" he asks.
"No," Mrs. Cheung says firmly. "It hope."
The son receives a letter from his father; he considers his home and how to respond.
A letter from my father has arrived, and I don't want to open it. I found it with the other mail as I walked up my gravel drive looking through furniture ads, bills, and inquiries about my pigeons. Among these was an envelope in my father's handwriting, posted from Los Angeles. Part of me wants to put the letter back in the mailbox. He has written Westen Chan on the outside, a last name I haven't used since I was eight, when they changed it to Gray. The morning mist rolls past me, reaching around my body like a slow hand as I open the envelope. There is not much to read, a few lines. The second-to-last one says, "I want to take you to China."
I sit on the stump of an old pine I cut down last year, and reread the letter.
Yes, it has been too long. And yes, I have paid a big price for leaving you. I am sure it has cost you as well. I have been in contact with your aunt and she tells me, among many things, you have chosen to remain alone. If I have caused this, I'm sorry. There are some important things about your mother you should know. I have a debt to you I have not paid and I want to take you to China. Please, I would like to explain myself and I hope you can forgive me.
How can I forgive a man I have not seen in decades? And he says I have chosen to be alone. Aunt Catherine has kept my confidence, then, because it is only true that I'm alone now. I was in love for a long time, but I learned I am not meant for relationships. Being left is a pattern in my life that began with my father and I choose not to invite the opportunity again. Now he returns with an offer of a trip to China, which sounds like a word I shouldn't know, something without meaning. But it comes to my voice and I whisper it into the Northwest air, where I imagine it hanging for a moment, white and fragile and foreign.
I think of a woman from years ago who lived on an egg ranch, Mrs. Cheung, who drove me home when my uncle was getting drunk with her husband. She left me with a gift, and before letting me out of the car reminded me that the blue box she'd given me was between the two of us. Even now I know where it is hidden and I think I should leave it there.
I look up from the letter and standing in front of me is the neighbor boy, Marky, and his friend Claire. They are both nine years old and round as balloons. Sometimes I let them tag along when I go fishing. Claire reminds me of a very old woman in very young skin. She wears her hair in a tight crown of braids. Her family is Methodist. Whenever she gets a chance, she chastises me for not being married. "Don't you want children and someone to love?" she likes to ask.
"Yes," I always respond, even though, for me, I don't think either is possible.
"Oscar's dying," Marky says now. He sounds resigned and sad. Oscar is his yappy, swaybacked dachshund that likes the cheese crackers I slip him when I walk by Marky's house. In fact, I've known Oscar longer than I've know Marky. The dog is old, so I'm not surprised, though I act otherwise.
"That's awful," I say. "What's wrong with him?"
Slightly agitated, Marky scratches his bristly head. "He's got tumors. And my dad says we can't bury him in the yard when he dies."
"Because," Claire chimes in, rolling her eyes, "his dad's cuckoo in the noggin."
I stifle a response. I've met Marky's father, and Claire's diagnosis isn't far off. Once he made the entire family sleep outside because he had a dream their house was going to burn down. He's not a bad man, but I understand a father's power to disappoint, which is probably why Marky and I get along so well.
"Dad says he don't want diseases in his yard. We even have to keep Oscar in the garage till he dies."
I look at the farthest part of my property and then back at Marky and Claire's plump faces. "I'm sorry about Oscar," I say. "But when he dies, you can bury him here."
"Really?" Marky reveals his gapped front teeth. "You don't care about tumors?"
"As long as they don't grow into tumor bushes, of course not."
Claire pats me on the hand in her overly mature manner. "You're a dear," she says, looking at my father's letter, which is still in my hand. She grabs Marky's elbow to pull him away, as if she knows that this piece of paper contains something weighty. On some unspoken cue they both run up the street, though they start walking after fifty yards or so.
Excerpted from Lost Men by Brian Leung Copyright © 2007 by Brian Leung. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
BRIAN LEUNG is the author of World Famous Love Acts, winner of the Asian American Literary Award and the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. He was born and raised in San Diego County, and currently lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where he is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Louisville.
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