Fiction. Asian & Asian American Studies. In THAT MAN IN OUR LIVES, New York-Hong Kong author Xu Xi extends the fictional universe of her earlier novels. New York is the perch from which she examines the shifting balance of power between China and the US, set against a tale of lifelong friendships between Gordon Ashberry—"Gordie" or "Hui Guo"—and his two best friends Harold Haight and Larry Woo and their families. Born to wealthy East Coast parents, Gordon is a Sinophile who has never held a job, married or raised children. His one attempt in his thirties to run an aircraft leasing business almost ends in bankruptcy and the loss of his inheritance. When Gordon turns fifty, he tells Harold, a tax lawyer, that he wants to give all his money away. An opportunistic young Chinese writer learns of this, she approaches him to write a book (Honey Money) about his decision, and upon publication it becomes a minor cult success. The ensuing publicity sends him into a self-imposed exile for several years, including from all his friends. The novel opens in March 2003 when Gordon is fifty-five and decides to disappear during a flight delay in Tokyo. The pre and post fallout around that disappearance informs this novel about the friend who has always been in your life, until he isn't, and how much or little we know of those we think we know well. Originally inspired by John Adams' opera Nixon in China, a large cast of characters traverse the globe in search of this missing protagonist, a Gatsby-ish figure with Chinese characteristics. THAT MAN IN OUR LIVES is Xu's metafictional answer to the late 18th Century Chinese classic novel, Cao Xueqin's Dreams of Red Chambers.
"With THAT MAN IN OUR LIVES, Xu Xi deepens her explorations of absence, alternate realities, and the elusiveness of identity in our increasingly fragmented world. When Gordon Ashberry vanishes one night at Narita Airport, a global mystery ensues, one in which every avenue of inquiry teasingly leads to a cascade of connections, insights and fractured possibilities. With heart and wisdom, THAT MAN IN OUR LIVES is ultimately an intense examination of the very nature of storytelling."—Adam Johnson
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Xu Xi is the author of five novels and six collections of fiction & essays, most recently the novel THAT MAN IN OUR LIVES and Interruptions, an ekphrastic essay collection in conversation with photographs by David Clarke. She is also editor or co-editor of four anthologies of Hong Kong writing in English. A transnational "third culture" writer, she long inhabited the flight path connecting New York, Hong Kong and the South Island of New Zealand. She was Writer-in-Residence at City University of Hong Kong's Department of English and was previously on the MFA in Writing faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she served as faculty chair. In 2016, she was Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at Arizona State University's Piper Center for Creative Writing. Currently, she is a partner at Authors at Large, which she co-founded with the writer Robin Hemley to offer international writing retreats and workshops.
Read an Excerpt
That Man in Our Lives
By Xu Xi
C&R PressCopyright © 2016 Xu Xi (S. Komala)
All rights reserved.
FOUR YEARS LATER
To get rich is glorious
In the sky over the harbor, a helicopter hangs. Its blades chop, slice, shear the air, as it hovers, insistently loud, as if the city needs more noise, an even louder soundtrack to its story. Perhaps the pilot, too, is tentative — his brain fried like Pete's — and waits, like some lost bird, for a sign from the severe clear blue. Hong Kong is hot and Pete Gordon Haight is muddled. Noon on this Saturday in July, 70% relative humidity, is almost "severe clear." In pilot speak, such clarity can be blinding. Pete knows; his godfather, G, taught him that years ago, the first time he took Pete up in the Cessna over Block Island Sound and beyond, east towards the Atlantic. He had been eleven, his heart jumping out of his chest as he peered through his glasses at the disappearing isle below, where his father waited nervously and his mother glowed with pride. Hey G, Pete said, it's like the world's vanishing. Yeah, Gordie replied, it is P, it is.
But today, he is trying not to think about Gordon Ashberry for a change, and concentrates instead on Tiara Fung, his sweetie, his fiancée who is never, ever muddled, who always knows why she does what she does and will make sure he knows as well.
"So," she is saying, "you do like Tempest, don't you? I thought about it a long time."
He holds back, avoids any witticism that will sting. "It's okay, I guess. But what's wrong with Tiara? I liked that name." And, he does not add, he is finally used to calling her that in bed and will not blurt out some wrong name at the worst possible moment, the way he once did back in New Haven when he yelled, "Carmen!" There's no Carmen, I promise, he pleaded afterwards, desperate for her to believe he was faithful, which he was. It took months of coaxing before she would trust him again, during which time she did what all doubting girlfriends do: withheld sex just often enough to hurt. In his defense, she had toyed with Carmen as a name and previously went by her Chinese name Suet-fa. What Pete hadn't confessed, however, was that it had all been Bizet's fault. His damn aria was the cell phone ring tone of his hot Taiwanese language tutor — what was her name? — the phone that went off at all the wrong moments in class, the moments when Pete was imagining those parts of him against all those untouchable parts of her anatomy.
"Tempest is memorable," she says.
"Strange you mean."
"Not so strange."
She follows his eyes up towards the blue, feigning a deep interest in the helicopter that still hangs. They are under the covered walkway outside the Ocean Terminal in Kowloon, sheltered from the glare, their hips against the railing along the pier.
"Hey." He leans in close and slides his finger along her bared midriff. "Tempest Fung Suet-fa is the most gorgeous woman in all of Kowloon." His teeth part her hair and his lips touch the back of her neck.
"Only Kowloon?" She continues gazing upwards.
But he can feel her smile.
Mrs. Fung does not know quite what to make of this polite, perpetually disheveled young man. He seems so unsuitable as a future husband for their youngest child and only girl, their late-in-life baby, although Mr. Fung roundly dismisses her fears. She concedes to his intelligence (a degree from Yale-O), and nice features (not perhaps the best-looking Westerner, skinny and small, even shorter than their sons, although of course, their daughter is average height so they're well-matched) because he has an open expression and a thoughtful demeanor. Also, he does speak passable Cantonese, but surprisingly good Mandarin, his accent much better than their own. Classy, like the Beijing elite. A reasonably good family, although his parents are divorced, regrettably. His father is a tax and estates lawyer who used to work for the investment bank Merryweather Lind right here in their Hong Kong office, and he struck her as a nice man, honest and conservative. So maybe Peter will eventually land a proper job, instead of his current state, at twenty-seven, still in school for what Suet-fa says is graduate research in some "Asian studies" — incomprehensible — not like business studies, in which both their two sons have degrees and are now well-paid, the eldest running an international ad agency in Shanghai and the second boy at home, a senior VP for a major American bank.
Pete has been staying in their home for a little over a week now since his arrival. Their relatively new home, a private flat in a brand-new building out near the Gold Coast into which they moved five years ago, the purchase and mortgage arranged and paid for by their two sons. It's the first time the Fung family has not lived in public housing. Mr. Fung was reluctant to leave the old neighborhood — Shek Kip Mei was the first public housing built by the Hong Kong government so it's historical, he is fond of reminding them — but the estate was old and had to be vacated for preservation and, besides, Mr. Fung is no longer the son of squatters — uneducated immigrants from China — the man who must hoard relentlessly in anticipation of the next disaster, like the Shek Kip Mei fire of 1953 that destroyed his original home, a hut on the hillside, who had to leave school at thirteen to work his parents' butcher stall at the wet market, whose only dreams in life were for the generation to come.
At dinner, Pete eats little from the array of dishes. He tried when he first arrived to explain his vegetarian dietary preference but gave up. Isobel, his mother, who is staunchly vegetarian, had said, surely it won't be a problem aren't they Buddhist, they're vegetarian, right?
What Mom doesn't understand, even though he's tried to tell her, is that Buddhism here is just life, like her own Catholicism, and not shrouded in the spiritual purity she ascribes to it, and besides, Mr. Fung used to be a butcher after all.
Mrs. Fung frowns at her daughter. Why doesn't she serve her fiancé, her eyes demand, but Suet-fa ignores her, as usual.
Mr. Fung declares, "Those two helicopters, bang! Right in mid-air. Imagine that."
"Phoenix, wasn't it? News choppers?" Tempest asks Pete in English.
Her second brother interrupts in Cantonese. "Wei, the 'humans' don't understand."
"Shut your mouth!"
Pete catches the 'humans' reference and winces. He is glad that his stay is almost over and that he can move into his own place next week. The Fungs are more than hospitable, especially Mrs. Fung who is once again heaping more food into his bowl than he can possibly eat. But his presence makes things a little tense in their eight hundred square foot, three-bedroom flat, and bunking down in his sleeping bag on the living room floor each night has taken a toll. When he first arrived he headed towards Tiara's — Tempest's — room but she gave him that what are you, insane? look and he quickly detoured. The brother did offer — you can have my room? — in a voice that said you fuckin' well better not and the sofa wouldn't have contained Tempest, never mind him. After the first four days, the brother softened up enough to call him a "Western human," raising his status from that of merely a "ghost guy."
Mr. Fung addresses him in a mix of Cantonese and Mandarin, something he regularly does, because he knows Pete still can't hear Cantonese properly. "Why is it American journalists go so crazy chasing some stupid story?"
Before he can respond, Tempest says. "Come on, Hong Kong journalists are just as bad, aren't they?"
"Am I talking to you?" Her father demands in his deliberate manner. "Besides, local stations don't fly so many helicopters." He looks at Pete expectantly.
Pete clears his throat, stalls for time. "For the pursuit of happiness?" All the Fungs laugh, even the brother.
Mrs. Fung is relieved. This bantering between husband and kids gives dinner an edge she doesn't always like. By now she ought to be used to this, and in a way, it is a good thing that Peter — Pete, Pete, Suet-fa insists, but, honestly, young women are so fussy and the boy answers to Peter anyway — gets to experience their family's ways.
Just as well, too, since her daughter is the most argumentative of all her children. Mrs. Fung sucks on a fish bone until it glistens. Instant recall: how she misses her oldest boy, the one who best loved her steamed fish, the one who knows more about food than even his father. He approved of Peter, liked him immediately. Her second son on the other hand, well, he always takes time to warm to anyone.
When Suet-fa sent photos back from the U.S. of Peter's home in New Jersey, taken before the divorce was final and the father still lived there, he had shrugged aside her comment that the Haights must be rich. Middle class, he said, upper middle. She believed him because he is the smart one, the Stanford MBA who makes shocking amounts of money but contributes much of what he earns to the family, who paid for most of his sister's university education and spends frugally on himself. The worry is that he is too frugal for any wife, which is why, at thirty-seven, he is still unmarried and lives with them, and she is still waiting for grandchildren. As for the oldest boy, well, it's that media and advertising world as her husband says ... but about all that, her brain simply tunes out, simply will never, ever understand why her son is gay.
Meanwhile, husband and daughter are making loud noises about the meaning of the news. Peter eats so little that she still fears he doesn't like her cooking. Pete's got no problem, her husband constantly assures. If he really wants to marry our daughter, he will adapt to her environment and background. Her husband is right but still she worries, because Peter stutters when he speaks — Suet-fa says it's nothing, that he's always had a slight stammer but Mrs. Fung thinks there must be something wrong — and he always seems to wait for her daughter to decide about every little thing. What kind of man does that? Furthermore, he's chosen such a strange name for himself — Ha Pak-fu — when everyone can see that the last thing he is, is tiger-like, although, secretly, she suspects he is more tiger-like than he lets on, which is another reason to worry for Suet-fa.
As far as Mrs. Fung is concerned, that's all the news she cares about.
Pete stares at the cornucopia that is tonight's dinner. Steamed fish, beef and green peppers with black bean sauce, sweet sour spare ribs and summer's favorite vegetable dish, water spinach with preserved tofu. Fresh pineapple, peeled and sliced into the thinnest of rings, garnish the pork. Earlier, Tiara-Tempest warned, you must eat a little of everything tonight otherwise Ma will be offended, she's making this huge meal especially for you.
Mrs. Fung addresses him, cutting across the conversation clatter between Tempest and her dad. "Right taste for you?"
"Very right." He spits out a fish bone on the table, adding to the pile.
"Here, have more sweet sour."
She spoons the orange sauce over his rice. Tempest works hard to suppress a giggle as Pete raises an accusatory eyebrow at her from across the table. Mr. Fung chomps loudly away, talking noisily about the news reports earlier. Like predatory birds, he describes the helicopters. The world is going to hell in some insane hand basket, Pete thinks, as he swallows the sticky sauce and rice, smiling all the while at his future mother-in-law. Tempest is apoplectic. Her lover, she knows, despises sweet and sour.
It was not so long ago that life for Pete was crystal clear. Half a year, no, slightly more, the season of Thanksgiving dinners with his family. His father had conceded to Wednesday night at a restaurant so that Mom could do the full-on dinner for the day because his brother and wife would be there, back east from L.A. where Harold Jr., a.k.a. Dunderdick II (but only to Pete of course, courtesy of Aunt Patti who christened her brother, their father, the honorable first), now lived with his wife, pregnant with their first child. His brother!
Barely thirty and almost a father, imagine.
And there it was, late Tuesday afternoon in New Haven where the campus had already begun to empty. Tiara was freaking over what to wear to the city and no matter how often he said she looked great in everything, she countered with you're just saying or shut up, please, neither of which made sense. Pete remained calm. As she tore around their apartment, packing, unpacking, repacking, he watched this typhoon girlfriend negotiate an uncertain path of destruction. It reminded him of his high school days back in Hong Kong when the government issued a signal 3 warning and everyone wondered, will it or won't it intensify, will we or won't we have school tomorrow?
He tried another tack. "Pity Dad didn't want to do Aunt Patti's.
That would be some meal what with both my cousins and uncle home this year. She's a fabulous cook."
Tiara glared at him. "You are insane. Like it's not enough that you give me less than a week's notice that we're doing this whole family Thanksgiving thing, now you want me to meet even more family."
"You've met pretty much everyone there. Aunt Patti and her husband Richard, and my uncle John. They were all there that first Thanksgiving you came to, remember?"
"But not your cousins and their wives, well wife of the older one, or Laura."
"Only because she and the Pater man weren't shacking up yet."
"Don't talk about your father like that!"
"Why the hell not?"
"It's not respectful."
He dropped it then, not wanting to start yet another Sino-American conflict. Tiara, he knew, would have been completely at ease with his crazy Kahn cousins and the girls they brought home — well, wife now, for Brandon (what was her name again?
Tiara would know, of course, since she had his entire family tree memorized) — but there was no telling her that, not now, not while she couldn't decide between the rose-grey cashmere and silk thing, and whatever the other outfit was. What she didn't know was how little all these appearances mattered to the Kahns, and how his father relaxed around his siblings, especially Patti. How that would have been the easiest family dinner to get through. Never mind, another year. Meanwhile, what Pete wondered was will she or won't she and for a minute panicked at the thought of what he would do if she said no.
He fingered the ring box in his pocket. Tiara was doing yet another outfit and mirror thing. Now was as good a time as any.
Laura Polk Silverstein spotted it first. From across the table, she glanced at Pete and then at Tiara. "Congratulations in order?"
Harold was frowning at the menu. When he'd agreed to an Italian place for a pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving dinner, he hadn't expected Laura to pick something quite so, well, not nouveau exactly, but, well, peculiar. He looked up. "What for?"
Her lips smiled-quivered. She laid a hand on his arm and gestured elegantly towards Tiara's hand, on which sparkled a discreet diamond. "Your future daughter-in-law."
The shock on his face was palpable. Pete gripped his fiancée's right hand under the table, willing calm. He was afraid she might start crying, which wouldn't do. "Hey Dad," he said. "One of us had to quit shacking up, right?"
Laura was doing the silent guffaw. Tiara was on her way to a mini stroke. Speak Dad, quick, he prayed. Do it right.
Harold's thick, dark eyebrows valleyed, connected. He did his two-breath thing, and Pete hoped his father wouldn't start with the word spacing thing, a sign of more than mere discontent. But then his lips twitched, he looked directly at Tiara, and then he rose, went round the table to give her a hug and say welcome to the family, and Tiara melted into his father's arms. Pete caught Laura's gaze — those magnificent eyes; who didn't love goddess Laura? — and was finally, now, for the first time in days, truly at ease.
Afterwards, Tiara assailed him. "Why didn't you tell me she was the Laura Silverstein. I mean, I've read everything of hers, and everything she recommends on her website booklist."
They were back in the guest room at his mother and Trevor's apartment, overlooking Central Park. "You liked her didn't you?"
"Of course! She's absolutely amazing. Your father's so lucky to be with her. But why didn't you tell me?"
"I said she was this writer."
"You kept saying Polk."
"That's her name. It's what she prefers. She just kept Silverstein after the divorce because of her books. Anyway, you were a hit with her, too. We guys couldn't get a word in edgewise or any-wise."
It startled him to see that she was blushing, pleased. There was something so unspeakably charming about her, about this larger-than-life woman who had agreed to be his wife. She unzipped her dress (she went with the rose-grey cashmere and silk), and it softened on her body like butter on a hot griddle. In her pale grey bra and matching thong, she was obscene.
Excerpted from That Man in Our Lives by Xu Xi. Copyright © 2016 Xu Xi (S. Komala). Excerpted by permission of C&R Press.
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