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Lost Men

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Overview

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 ...
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Lost Men

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Overview

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.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Brian Leung has written a compelling and heartfelt story about a father and son, separated for years, and their struggle to reconnect. Written in a spare, elliptical, lyrical voice, Lost Men plumbs complicated questions about family and identity. What can a father offer his son after so much time has passed? How does the past–the world of our fathers, and their fathers–continue to exert its hold over our lives? This is a novel of enormous wisdom and emotional weight.”    
—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 anywhere--Chinese, 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.”
Instinct Magazine

From the Hardcover edition.

Publishers Weekly

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
Library Journal

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.
—Henry Bankhead

Kirkus Reviews
A father and son travel to China in an attempt to bridge their 25-year estrangement in Leung's debut novel (World Famous Love Acts: Stories, 2004). Westen Chan is eight years old when his American mother Celia is struck and killed by a car near their Los Angeles home. His distraught father, Xin, decides for reasons he keeps secret that Westen should live with his wife's childless aunt and uncle on their farm in Washington state and be reared as an American. Although the aunt and uncle treat Westen lovingly, he never understands why he had to lose his father after his mother died. As he matures into a sensitive but emotionally reserved man, Westen resists falling in love with anyone until he meets Gideon, an older man who is dying of AIDS. He and Gideon live chastely together until Gideon's death. Sometime afterward, Westen, now 32, receives a letter from his father inviting him on the trip to his homeland. Their reunion is awkward. As they travel with a small tour group through China, Westen cannot resist expressing his deep resentment, although he knows that is not the sum of his feelings toward his father. Unbeknownst to Westen, Xin is dying and needs to explain why he left Westen behind, but he has trouble conveying his complex motive, which factors in Xin's own father's disapproval of his marriage to Celia; Xin's failure to defend Celia from a rape; and his fear of not protecting Westen in a foreign culture. The story is presented in alternating short chapters from the son's perspective and the father's. Each chapter begins with a formal heading (e.g. "The father and son arrive at Confucius's Temple; the son recalls a trip to Disneyland."). The effect is that of touring a progressionof tableaus, which contrasts powerfully with the roiling feelings father and son are incapable of expressing. A patient, artfully controlled work about memory, regret and love.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307351654
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/26/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.19 (w) x 7.98 (h) x 0.64 (d)

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.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

1

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.

Dear Westen:

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.

Your Father

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 known 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."

"Why not?"

"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.

So I'm thinking about getting a piece of oak for a headstone and somewhere I still have the wood-burning kit Uncle Cane gave me when I was a child. If I think about these things, maybe I won't have to think about my father and the intrusion of his letter into my life. The Columbia River is where I've carved out a place for myself: the dark blush of heather at the edge of the lawn, wild lupine I brought down from the mountains. I coax each plant from hard seed soaked in warm water. This is how I discovered patience. I have always been calmed by the pine tree at the edge of the property, the last of the old trees in Blue Falls. I have stood beneath it in the rain-the needles capturing the drops, altering their speed and course. Sometimes in a downpour, the base of the tree, with its broad branches above, feels like an open shower.

My father has never been here, never seen my home. Locals call it the Lighthouse because the second floor has a ruby-colored oval pane of glass. Flecks of gold mixed into the glass help to create its color. Early travelers on the river used the red glow of the window in the evening hours as a landmark. I have always wondered at this touch of extravagance in such a basic wooden house. The roof leaks in a new place every few years, and some of the pine siding has split. Still, not bad really for having gone through nearly a century of snow and warm, humid summers.

This used to be my great-aunt Catherine's home. When my father gave me up as a child, it became my home too. Now my aunt has moved permanently to San Diego, and I have stayed. After I was done repainting the white siding and green trim, I bought it from her. I pick up odd jobs in town, and in good weather I get yard work. Between that and selling my racing and show pigeons, it's enough.

I am part of life here in the Columbia River Gorge, its constant green slope terminating in a blue artery of water. I live on a steep grade, always on the verge of stumbling. The ponderosa and hemlock and the spring flowers mask volcanic rock. In the fall, the feathery yellow of the aspen will crack across the mountains like hatching chicks. Each season offers a new identity. When you live here long enough, you learn to do the same. It seemed like a way of life until now, as I hold a letter that's calling me by my old name.

2

The son considers a letter to his father;

he recalls his childhood bond.

I have carried my father's letter for three days. His stationery gets increasingly worn with each reading. He wants to take me to China when I spent so much of my life wanting him to take me home.

I sit in the brightest room on the top floor of my house, preparing to write my father that I will not go to China with him, something I wish I could tell him in Chinese. I have lost nearly all the words I used to know. When I was very young my father mostly spoke to me in Cantonese and Mandarin until he was certain English would not overtake my voice. Even my blond mother, with all her hard Caucasian syllables, got through breakfast and dinner in broken Chinese until I was two or three. Please-m-goy-was the only word she pronounced truly well. Before I fully learned English, she often used this word, followed by a number of hand signals that completed her sentences.

The early language barrier with my mother brought me and my father close. He wanted me to be Chinese. When I was in kindergarten, I came home one day and complained that the other Chinese children were calling me white. He took off his black-framed glasses and pinched the faint bridge of his nose. "No. No. You are Chinese," he said, firmly. Though it is not lost on me now that he chose to convey this in English.

He walked me to the large mirror on my closet door. We stood side by side, holding hands as he spoke. "This is what your classmates see," he said. "You have the same olive skin as they do, the same dark hair. They also see that some things are different." He ran his finger down the line of my nose. "This is your mother's. Yes, and your eyes, too. But someday you will also have a voice just like mine. They don't understand that you're lucky to have some of both of us." We looked at each other in the mirror. He held his black hair in place with oil, and his glasses were tinted, giving his cheeks a faint amber tone.

He must have realized I wasn't satisfied. "What no one can see is that you are Chinese inside," he said. I almost asked what that meant to him.

"Wo xian zai ming bai le," I said instead. I knew that when I spoke Chinese it made him happy. "Now I understand." It is one of the few phrases that has stayed with me, along with his promise that I would someday have a voice just like his, something from the inside. I have always wondered if that came true.

After the talk with my father, I woke every morning to a plate with three large dates on my bedstand, placed there by him to remind me of our heritage and prosperity. It was the one gift he looked forward to as a small boy in China, he explained to me once. Every year on his grandmother's birthday he received a small tin of dates. From his descriptions I can even picture it: the gold metal sealed around the edges with red wax. He counted each date, and calculated how small his bites must be for the gift to last a year.

Along with this daily offering, my father and I had another morning ritual. After I finished the last of the dates, the pits neatly piled on the plate, my father lay facedown on the floor without his shirt. I hopped out of bed and walked the length of his back several times. His vertebrae pressed into the arches of my small feet, sometimes giving with a sharp pop. Above his left shoulder blade were two evenly spaced round scars the size of marbles. He told me very little about these except that they were caused by bullets when he and his family were escaping from the Communists. The man who would have been my uncle did not survive.

Unable to start my letter, I open the window. The morning light comes to the gorge like a vapor, thin and speculative. The trees are warming and the scent of pine is as elemental as oxygen or hydrogen. I spent much of my childhood here at the edge of the Columbia. A hundred years ago this property was the center of a working farm, sheep and chickens for loggers and fishermen. Now it's reduced to a few acres, overtaken at the edges by young trees. This is a land of enclosure. The forest wants to return and I have decided to let it.

The apple tree behind the house has gone wild. Its spray of thin branches hangs over the part of the building where I keep my pigeons. Every winter I think this tree has died and every spring it surprises me, first with white blossoms, then budding out in green. When I was eight, Aunt Catherine lifted me on her shoulders so I could reach past the hornets and bees and bird-pecked fruit and pick the highest apples.

Beneath the tree is Uncle Cane's whetstone, rusted in place. This is where he sharpened our ax blades every few weeks. A tin can hangs at the side by a wire. I kept it full of water while he pedal-pumped the round stone, dribbling water to reduce the white sparks. "Sharpening will be your job when you get older," he told me. I have never used it.

Now I sit at my desk trying to write to this man who brought me dates and whose skin was soft and moist under my feet. The paper in front of me is blank, except for the words "Dear Father." This greeting strikes me as odd now, but there was a time when I would have meant it.

I am skeptical. My father has not written since I asked him to stop his annual correspondence, the dispatches from Hong Kong or Los Angeles every year on my birthday. Always a check and an apology, but never an opportunity to open the blue box that was supposed to give me hope. What could he want now, in my thirty-second year? I am not the Caucasian-looking boy with the bowl-cut hair that he left after my mother died.

I have never understood why my father gave up after she was gone. Before my mother was struck by a car, they playfully argued over names for a daughter when we went out to eat dim sum. They considered Wuhan, or Beatrice for her mother. After my mother died, my father's eyes looked scooped and waxy and he barely spoke to me. I was waist-high to the people at the funeral, all of them in dark suits, as if I stood in a forest of black trees. I remember the green grass beyond my mother's mahogany casket, and, after the service, my father's words. "You're going to stay with your great-aunt Catherine for a while." And then, as if this mattered to me, "They have two nice homes." In a couple of sentences, my life was rerouted. Instead of studying Chinese characters and painting on rice paper on Saturdays, I learned to train racing pigeons and to pull salmon out of the Columbia.

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Reading Group Guide

1. What do you think of the dual voices–those of Westen and his father, Xin–the author uses to tell the story in Lost Men? Would the novel have been different if the story were told from only one point of view? Additionally, why do you think the author chose to begin and end the novel in the third person, and what is the effect?

2. “Each season offers a new identity. When you live here long enough, you learn to do the same” (page 11). Consider Westen’s statement. Does it reveal anything about his personality? What do you think it means in the context of what happens in Lost Men?

3. Talk about the relationships Westen has with the men in his life: his father, his uncle Cain, Gideon. How are these relationships different from, and similar to, one another?

4. Did it surprise you that after their trip to China, at the end of which Westen forgave his father, that the two men spoke only twice in the next year? What kept them apart in this way? What did you think of the scene in which Westen travels to see his father upon learning of his terminal illness?

5. Water is a recurrent symbol in Lost Men. Discuss some instances where water is prominent, and their significance. What other symbols are employed in the novel?

6. Why do you think Xin hides his illness from Westen, despite the many times on their trip to China when he bares his soul to his son–including his revelation about the vicious attack on Celia, and the question of Westen’s paternity?

7. While on the Great Wall, why won’t Westen fully open the blue velvet box that Mrs. Cheung gave to him when he was a boy? What do you thinkheld him back?

8. Though the title is Lost Men, in what ways are the women in the novel equally important to the story?

9. When Westen reveals to his father his nearly neutral sexuality, Xin gives Westen his blessing to find love, regardless of the gender of the person. Were you surprised by Xin’s reaction? How did you expect him to respond?

10. Xin communicates most intimately with Westen through letters; Westen writes heartfelt letters to his aunt Catherine from China; Westen’s mother has written a letter that reveals who Westen’s father really is. Consider the acts of letter-writing in Lost Men and the freedom they allow these characters.

11. What are the consequences of the secrets Xin and Westen have kept in their lives?

12. What does it mean to be Chinese (in Westen’s case), or to be of another ethnicity? Does DNA matter more in determining a person’s heritage, or is it the environment in which they are raised?

13. Were you surprised by what happens after Westen receives his mother’s letter?

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