A postmodern mess of a debut: earnest and ambitious, but disjointed and strained. Middle-aged T.C. Chai is a former Chinese Red Guard whose father died in the Korean War. Although Chai lived through the Three Bad Years of 1959-61 and the great Cultural Revolution, and swam across the Deep Water Bay en route from China to Hong Kong to America, he is still haunted not by these experiences so much as by a horrific incident from his collegiate Red Guard days. Even when firmly established in Manhattan as a financial analyst for an investment bank, with a lovely wife (also Chinese) and a daughter, and thoroughly entrenched in upper-middle-class urban society (Scrabble, dinner parties, shopping), Chai can't come to terms with ""the rape."" Years ago, Chai's group of Guards had been bent on harassing a ""counterrevolutionary"" history professor. The group's leader, Yu, convinced his companions, including Chai, not only to destroy the professor's house and grounds but to assault the professor's teenage daughter. Though Chai had only pretended to rape the girl, his guilt as a participant and silent bystander runs deep; in his anguish, he draws a parallel between the rape and the Cultural Revolution, which unleashed an unfocused, irrational ""lust to destroy"" within the nation. Chai's troubled past has contributed to his fascination with ""dead thinkers,"" including Dr. Samuel Johnson, but it is the relatively obscure, seldom-studied Calvin Coolidge who becomes Chai's obsession, and it is Coolidge's voice and spirit that guide him in his transition into American life and in his struggle to come to grips with his past. The trouble isn't just that the story itself, however intense in background, is so slight but that the Coolidge hook--which is meant to make everything else resonate--is dull and confusing and just doesn't lift when lifting is needed.