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A complex and troubling portrayal of alienation develops surely from this lively and often very funny first novel by a MacArthur-winning playwright and actor.

Narrator and protagonist William Narciso Paulhina is a Filipino New Yorker "working" as a gay male hustler when he meets Shem C., a Jewish novelist who offers him an intriguing new fictional life. Though initially wary, William agrees to pose as "Master Chao" from Hong Kong, an expert in the Eastern holistic discipline of feng shui ("the merging of intuition with common sense"), the art of creating, through meditation and renunciation, a more benign personal environment. Neurotic and suggestible New Yorkers are easily fleeced, and William (a self-created intellectual of sorts, inspired by Agatha Christie novels and Kurosawa films) discovers a talent for duplicity that enables him to misuse the tactics of feng shui ("taking the faith and warping it for disastrous ends") against the complacent socialites (mainly his in-laws) on whom Shem has (for reasons only partially revealed to William) sworn revenge. It's a nifty plot idea, and Ong fills the story with vividly sketched and functional supporting characters, ranging from the street people who are William's old acquaintances to the topmost of Manhattan's upper crust, and including William's countrywoman Preciosa, a failed film actress and, interestingly, his alter ego; a 90-year-old "Dowager from whom he has much to learn; and Kendo, the beautiful young man whose seductive presence attracts William's lustful attention and propels him toward the explosive climax. And in its moving dénouement, set in Los Angeles, whence William has fled his outraged "clients," Ong brilliantly conveys both William's exhausted regret and self-hatred and the unquenchable vitality of his irrepressible survival instinct.

There's a little of J.P. Donleavy's Ginger Man in Ong's William, but Fixer Chao is nevertheless an original and perversely entertaining creation: a luminous picaresque with a distinctive mixture of farce and savagery.

Pub Date: April 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-374-15575-5
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 2001