A Memoir
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Prolix memoir chronicles Reefer Madness in the New China.

The Shanghai-born but U.S.-raised author, a graduate of Brandeis University and Boston College Law School, cherished his foreigner’s privileges in the rollicking atmosphere of an urban China gone mad for hedonism and consumer sophistication. His bilingual abilities made him a hot recruit for an international law firm, but his callowness and self-absorption soon led to his washout. He had more luck as an entrepreneur, launching a Western-style food-delivery service in Beijing called Foodiez. Despite cultural differences and bureaucratic hurdles, it was successful enough to allow the author plenty of time to smoke hashish and rail obnoxiously against his filthy, unreliable employees, who “looked like they had just rolled off of a coal truck.” The memoir’s story arc initially resembles that of novels like Bright Lights, Big City: ZZ enjoys his outsider status in a generic mélange of nightlife, chums and women (characterized most superficially), but things change abruptly when he is picked up by the seemingly incompetent police for public toking. The 19th-century scourge of opium left China with a confused, punitive attitude toward drugs, the author argues, and the not-so-naïve cops viewed him as a political prize when they realized he was native-born. Arrogant ZZ was chastened to learn he faced a sentence of eight months or more. His memoir describes a prison experience situation reminiscent of Midnight Express, but without that book’s dramatic tension. Prodigious networking and the underground Chinese tradition of guan xi (the granting of favors coupled with bribery) saved ZZ, who wound up serving only two weeks. His account ends with a somewhat unconvincing description of his moral transformation. The author’s observational strengths, such as a chilling report of what happens in China’s state-sanctioned rehab, are swamped by repetitive, juvenile prose in a book that should be at least 100 pages shorter. Readers curious about the changing face of China should look for James Fallows’s comparatively cerebral Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009).

Colorful, but superficial and grating.

Pub Date: March 31st, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-312-53108-9
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2009