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.
About the Author
Michael Harris is a Vietnam veteran and a former reporter, editor, and book reviewer for West Coast newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. He lives in Long Beach, California.
Read an Excerpt
The Chieu Hoi Saloon
By Michael Harris
PM PressCopyright © 2010 Michael Harris
All rights reserved.
A year later, when it was Harry Hudson's blood on the floor of the Chieu Hoi Saloon, Mama Thuy remembered the first time she'd seen him — a big guy in a tweed jacket, helping Rita and Navy Swede mop somebody else's blood from around the legs of the pool table.
Rita, a barmaid who just before the fight had ducked into the ladies' room and done a line, gazed at Mama Thuy dreamily, thinking of the second after one Marine's cue had hit the other Marine on the left temple. Where the sunburned white skin was so thin you could see the veins through it. Little-boy skin. And the bones underneath were thin, too, Rita had read somewhere. Like tissue paper. The cue had made a hollow sound — though wasn't a head stuffed with brains and water and shit, without any empty space inside? But what really blew Rita's mind was that single second, when she stared at the skin where the cue had hit and saw nothing. Not a mark. Just skin. Glowing, perfectly white. Then, when the blood poured out, it seemed to spill from nowhere. Far out, Rita thought. She wanted to tell Mama Thuy about that, but Mama Thuy, coming in at midnight to close the place, wouldn't have the patience for it, Rita knew. Seen enough bar fights in her time.
So all she said, after the mess had been cleaned up, was "Him." Rita pointed her chin at the new guy. "Keep an eye on him. He come in here all happy, got himself a new job or somethin'. He was buyin' drinks for everybody. Then, whoa, all of a sudden he's cryin' and shit. Like he's a whole other person, man. Or crazy."
Or he's on something too, Rita thought.
* * *
At first, Mama Thuy hardly noticed the new guy. Just the blood — threads and drops of it, and in one place a big red smear on the linoleum, mixed with suds and dirty water. She set her purse down on the bar. "What happen?"
"Couple Marines," Charlene said at the cash register. "One of 'em called the other one a faggot."
"Where they go? Take a taxi? Jesus, turn it down."
The thump of the jukebox made the base of her skull ache. She worked the remote switch herself, automatically, as she had seven nights a week for the last eight years. Hank Williams Jr., "There's a Tear in My Beer." Mama Thuy hated country music, but there was no way to get rid of it, not with her clientele. This song was one of Randy's favorites, and she checked for him down at the far end. Randy was asleep. Twenty-two years old, mental age about fifteen, sitting on his stool with one pimply cheek flat on the counter, still clutching a half-full glass.
"Wake up! Last call!" she yelled.
"Ron took 'em to St. Mary's, Mom," Rita was saying.
"Head wound," Navy Swede said, calm as usual. "Bled all over the place, but he'll be OK. Figured he'd better go to the emergency room, though, before he heads back to base."
"Ron was bein' an asshole again," Rita said.
"Too much water," Mama Thuy told the moppers. "You make too much work for yourself." Six years ago, in between marriages, she had lived with Ron for a month, and that mistake seemed destined to follow her forever. He hung around, looked sad, got drunk and mean, made trouble. "What they do, break another pool cue?" She sighed. "Why me?"
"B.J. was an asshole too," Charlene said.
"Tell me something new," Mama Thuy said. "Wake up!" she yelled again at Randy. He groaned and lifted his head, one end of his thin new mustache bent up like a spike. "Rita, you let Randy go to sleep? And Pop, too." For nobody seemed to have noticed the grey-bearded man in the tattered black pea coat who was snoring at his table in a corner next to the shrine to the Buddha, his head tilted back against the wall. His breath through the tangled hole in his whiskers was poisonous.
Mama Thuy lit two sticks of incense. She thrust them into the forest of burned sticks on the altar, before the little fat golden statue. "Cops come in, we get another ticket," she told Rita. "All your fault."
Rita pouted. "Shit, Mom, this fight was goin' on, how'm I supposed to notice? Randy drinks too much."
"Pop, I call you a taxi, OK?" Mama Thuy said.
The old man blinked awake, coughed up phlegm, groped for the aluminum crutch beside his chair.
"Then stop serving Randy drinks, if he drinks too much," she said to Rita. "Where's your brain?"
Filipinas, she thought, not for the first time. Her friend Kim Lee, who owned a bar in San Diego, had caught a couple of her girls giving customers blow jobs in the back booths. Crazy! Like Rita. She was thirty-seven already — the kind of girl who grew old but never grew up.
Lights on but nobody home.
"It's not my fault, Mom," Rita said.
"Then whose fault is it? They give me a ticket, they say my fault and I'm the one has to pay. You not the owner, you not the one responsible. I am."
She wondered if maybe it was time to fire Rita again. Was she back on cocaine, with her husband Walt's ship due in next month? Heavy duty. The trouble was, Rita brought in business. Flashed her tits a lot. Little tits, but it didn't matter. Guys liked her. Not like Charlene, who drove customers away with all her bitching.
Mama Thuy worked swiftly, automatically. She closed the Long Beach Boulevard door first, locking the folding metal screen outside and barring the door itself with a two-by-four. She wiped down the counter with a rag. She collected dirty glasses and ashtrays, filled a sink with hot water and detergent, plunged them in, washed them, set them clinking on the shelves behind the bar.
"Swede," she said. "Get me three cases of Bud, two cases of Miller, one case of Bud Light. OK, hon?"
Navy Swede, six-four and all muscle, went back into the storeroom. The new guy drifted after him.
"Pop," Mama Thuy said again. "You want a taxi?"
"Naw, I can make it," the old man said.
"You sure? I call you one."
Pop heaved himself slowly up, steadied himself on the edge of the table. He mumbled: "Sure as hell ain't gonna put it on my tab."
"I pay if I have to. Don't want you to get killed, Pop."
"Only three blocks," he said.
"Too many crazy people out there."
The old man hesitated. Wants his hug, Mama Thuy thought. She came out from behind the bar and put her arm gingerly around his waist. Pop stumbled into her — on purpose, she knew; the rubber tip of his crutch squeaked on the floor. His beard scratched like steel wool. He kneaded her shoulder, breathed crud into her face. Mama Thuy didn't flinch.
"Take care, Pop," she said. "See you tomorrow." She smiled narrowly. "Bright and early."
He left through the Anaheim Street door. The red velvet curtain flapped; traffic noise eddied in. Mama Thuy locked the screen there, too.
"OK, we closed," she said. "Everybody drink up!"
"And she would," Randy was saying, his voice shrill now that the music had stopped. "She would pay the taxi fare just so Pop wouldn't get mugged or run over. Even a smelly old fart like him." He said to the bar in general, belligerently: "Mom takes care of everybody. Even fuckups like me. That's why we love you, Mom. You're beautiful."
"Shut up, Randy," she said. "You think I want everybody to think I pay their taxi? No way, babe."
Swede and the new guy came back, lugging the cases of beer. Mama Thuy took each case in turn, ripped open the box, lifted the bottles out four at a time and jammed them into the ice chests under the counter. She smelled cheap perfume over the incense; Charlene was hovering behind her, waiting to talk.
"I need a ride," Charlene said sullenly. "Stanley went home."
"Oh, he's pissed at me, hates B.J. because he's black, and then B.J. just takes off, in my car ..."
"You give him shit again?"
"He gives me shit, Mom."
Breaking open the last case, Mama Thuy could see Charlene's face without looking at it: the crooked teeth, the high forehead caked with powder, the close-set eyes rimmed with mascara that would run if she started crying.
"I told you, Charlene, you don't listen. When you single, don't put all your eggs on one man. Better have two or three. That's what I do." She winked at the new guy, who had sat down with his elbows on the counter, watching her.
"Stanley's just jealous. It's so fucking stupid. He's old as Pop, almost."
"B.J. got a wife in Norfolk, Virginia," Mama Thuy reminded her. "Wife or girlfriend, whatever. Got a kid." She turned to Rita. "Take off. We OK now."
"Got a party to go to," Rita said, shrugging into a new red leather coat. "Ciao."
"Have a good one, huh?"
Party, Mama Thuy thought, unlocking the screen of the Anaheim Street door for her. She switched off the outside lights, straightened the chairs by the tables and the stools along the bar. She collected the money from the cash register, the cigarette machine and the pool table and put it all in her purse. She checked Randy: nodding again but still awake.
"OK, everybody," she said. "Let's go."
"I want to stay," the new guy said.
"I —" he said and then stopped. "Here."
"You can't stay here. I lock up now. Go home."
"In here," he said. "I mean all night. He —." He gestured at Randy.
"I told him about the cot," Randy said.
"That was for Black Jimmy when he was caretakin'," Navy Swede said. "Or Walt when he had a few too many. Not just any stranger come wanderin' off the street."
"What your name?" Mama Thuy asked.
A simple enough question, she thought. But the new guy's plump, ruddy, sweat-shiny face suddenly went lopsided, as if a stroke had paralyzed half of it; he stared off at an angle toward a blinking Coors sign, and turned even redder. His mouth opened, but all he made was a hissing sound. Mama Thuy had to look at him, finally. It was one of the skills she had learned best over the years: how to serve a man beer, take his money, make change, even flirt with him, bend over behind the counter so he could look down the front of her blouse all the way to the navel, and never meet his eye, never let him break the bubble of concentration around her. How else could she have done it for so long? Now she chose to look. A big guy but soft, about forty, sandy-haired, wearing decent clothes, even a tie. A whole lot drunker than she had thought. Or sick.
Two for St. Mary's in one night?
"He said his name's Harry," Randy said.
"Hudson." It burst out gratefully, with a spray of spit. "Harry Hudson."
"I'm Thuy. I'm the owner," she said. "How can I let you stay here? Maybe you drink all my beer and wine, how do I know? I don't open up till eleven."
"I'm broke. I don't have any other p —." Harry Hudson glanced away again, as if he needed privacy to wrestle with the word. "Place."
"Hard to believe," Mama Thuy said.
"Spent it all here." He tried to grin. "I'll get paid Monday, though."
"You don't have a home? Wife and kids? You look like you married to me."
He shook his head, and she saw something else in his expression — not just shame but fear.
"Salvation Army got a shelter on Atlantic."
"He's a newspaperman," Randy said. "Gonna write an article about this bar."
"Better move along, buddy," Navy Swede said.
"Please," Harry Hudson said. His blue eyes were so naked now that it embarrassed her. "Just let me stay. I won't do anything. Believe me."
Mama Thuy studied him. Every instinct told her that he was a fool but basically harmless. Her instincts could be wrong — look at Ron! — but not often. She judged that he couldn't drink much more of her beer without passing out anyway. And somewhere in the back of her mind she was anxious. Ever since that night last spring when two Mexicans came at closing time and pointed their guns through the diamond mesh of the screen and told her sister, Phuong, to unlock it and one stuck the muzzle of his revolver right into Phuong's mouth, chipped a front tooth, while the other made Thuy hand over the money, she had wanted to get past this moment and into her car as fast as possible. Phuong wouldn't even work in the bar anymore.
Still, it surprised her a little to be telling him: "OK, but I gotta lock you in. Anything broken, you pay. You don't pay, I call the police."
Harry Hudson nodded. "You won't be sorry."
"I don't like it," Navy Swede said.
"We see," Mama Thuy said. Now that she had made up her mind, she didn't want to change it. "You can use the men's room," she said. "Black Jimmy leave a blanket in there, I think. Come on, Charlene." She switched off the inside lights. The many-colored beer signs died like an unplugged Christmas tree. She herded everybody out onto Anaheim Street except Harry Hudson, who stood by the pool table as if in a trance, arms hanging down. She shut the door on him and double-locked the screen.
Hope he doesn't puke in there, she thought.
"Fucking incredible," Charlene said. "You're too nice, Mom."
"No more," she said grimly. "From now on, no more Mr. Nice Guy. You watch."
Randy staggered off to the east. He lived in a garage somewhere near Orange Avenue. Swede still seemed pissed. Mama Thuy was glad to have him, though, as she and Charlene crossed the street to the parking lot of a Discount Tire Center. When Stanley or Walt was there, she had a bodyguard on either side. That was even better. The intersection stretched empty — too empty — under the weird amber glow of the streetlights. Her high heels clicked. The siren of a cop car wavered over by Atlantic. Now she felt for sure that she had made a mistake.
"Good night, hon," she told Navy Swede before he even had a chance to get any ideas. "Later, alligator."
He climbed into his four-wheel-drive Toyota pickup with lights mounted over the cab, she and Charlene into the red Porsche that her last husband, Wade, had bought her: license plate THUY 944.
* * *
That night, sleeping on the cot in the storeroom of the Chieu Hoi Saloon, Harry Hudson was spared the worst dream of all — the one in which he lay pinned to the chaise lounge by the swimming pool of the apartment complex in Garbersville, Oregon, unable to move, while his two-year-old daughter, Sally, wandered slowly but unstoppably toward the water; below the ruffles of her bathing suit (yellow with little blue flowers) were pink ovals on the backs of her thighs from lying on the hot concrete. This was only the second-worst dream — the one in which his squad waited in ambush at the edge of an old Michelin rubber plantation twenty klicks northwest of Phuoc Vinh. It was December and dry, and big rusty leaves had fallen off the rubber trees, crackling when anyone moved, and it was cool enough to draw mist up out of the ground before dawn, when Harry Hudson saw a shadow materialize out of the field beyond and heard the squeak of a bicycle coming toward him. It was like a triple exposure. He knew he was dreaming this moment now, just as he knew then that he had dreamed it before, in one way or another, all his life. He opened his mouth, in Long Beach, in Vietnam, in all those other places, and nothing came out. Not a whisper. The muscles of his throat and tongue were rigid as boards. His lips numb. His cheeks and neck flushed with blood. He went out of himself then, as he often did, and came back after an indefinite time — a second? half an hour? — to panic. His mouth still frozen. In the dream the old man looked just like Ho Chi Minh, pointed straw hat, black pajamas, a wisp of white beard, though awake Harry Hudson could remember only his bony chest where the sights of the M-16 had pointed. In the dream he tried to hold the barrel down, but the rifle was flimsy, mostly plastic, lighter than air; it rose of its own will; he tried not to pull the trigger but it went off anyway, full automatic, and stitched the old man across that patch of withered brown skin and threw him off the bicycle. A calamitous noise, followed by a silence in which one wheel still spun and creaked and they suddenly realized that Charlie had been alerted for miles around, their whole night's wait wasted. Harry Hudson ran up with Sergeant Riker, whose words he had come to fear more than any words since his father's, right behind him, and saw that the old man had no gun, of course, nothing at all.
At that moment, with his entire being, Harry Hudson chieu hoied. Gave up.
Riker looked at him for a long time, looked through him, then spat into the dust next to the old man's bare foot in its tire-tread sandal.
"Well, shit," he said.
Excerpted from The Chieu Hoi Saloon by Michael Harris. Copyright © 2010 Michael Harris. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
"In this powerful and compelling first novel, Harris makes roses bloom in the gray underworld of porno shops, bars, and brothels by compassionately revealing the yearning loneliness beneath the grime—our universal human loneliness that seeks transcendence through love. "--(Paula Huston, author, Daughters of Song and The Holy Way)
Michael Harris is one of those rare beings: a natural writer, with insight, sensitivity and enviable talent.--(Charlotte Vale Allen, author, Daddy's Girland Mood Indigo)
Hardcore and unsparing, the story takes you on a ride. . . . one sweet read.--(Gary Phillips, author, The Jook )
Harris manages an amazing and transforming affirmation—the novel floats above all its pain on pure delight in the variety of the human condition . . . In an age less obsessed by sentimentality and mawkish 'uplift,' this book would be studied and celebrated and emulated.--(John Shannon, author, The Taking of the Waters)
“Harris manages an amazing and transforming affirmationthe novel floats above all its pain on pure delight in the variety of the human condition. . . . In an age less obsessed by sentimentality and mawkish 'uplift,' this book would be studied and celebrated and emulated.” John Shannon, author, The Taking of the Waters
“In this powerful and compelling first novel, Harris makes roses bloom in the gray underworld of porno shops, bars, and brothels by compassionately revealing the yearning loneliness beneath the grimeour universal human loneliness that seeks transcendence through love.” Paula Huston, author, Daughters of Song and The Holy Way
“Hardcore and unsparing, the story takes you on a ride. . . . One sweet read.“ Gary Phillips, author, The Jook
“Michael Harris is one of those rare beings: a natural writer, with insight, sensitivity and enviable talent.” Charlotte Vale Allen, author, Daddy's Girl and Mood Indigo
"It has been a very long time since a novel kept me up all night. This one did." San Bernardino Sun
"The novel’s fractured, incremental, stuttering form creates an organic momentum as eloquent as it is uncertain, like a peasant's bicycle built from spare parts gliding into gunfire." Seattle Examiner
Michael Harris is one of those rare beings: a natural writer, with insight, sensitivity and enviable talent.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.