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Young China hand Salzman made a big splash (at age 22) with his account of teaching in China, Iron and Silk (1986); now comes his first novel, a picaresque set in China, Hong Kong, and San Francisco. They're Chinese all right, but Salzman's two leads are still an all-too-familiar combination: a guileless young man and a much older henchman with extraordinary powers. The latter is Colonel Sun, a many-centuries-old Rip Van Winkle, and as resourceful as the mythical Monkey King; he can disarm an opponent with his power-stare. In 1960, he saves little Hsun-ching from certain death and delivers him to the scholarly Buddhist monk Wei-ching. The monk's hope while raising him is that one day Hsun-ching will travel to America to retrieve the Laughing Sutra, the only major scripture missing from his collection, but fast the boy must endure ten years hard labor in a commune (all part of Mao's Cultural Revolution). By 1976, the 20-year-old Hsun-ching is ready to set off, with the Colonel as his companion. Sun gets them across the border into Hong Kong, though (more old-hat material) he is nonplussed by such things as guns, TV sets, and elevators, and then wangles them free passage to San Francisco. Their American experience is a mix of cross-cultural comedy, as they struggle to make sense of hippies and gays, fast food and soup kitchens, and old-fashioned adventure (breaking into the Dharma Institute to steal the sutra), with just a smidgen of romance (Hsun-ching falls for the curator's assistant). The wrap-up has the monk, now on his deathbed, receiving the sutra from Hsun-ching, while the Colonel prepares to hibernate again. What starts out as a spiritual fable soon yields to run-of-the-mill picaresque: when the quest for the sutra fails to develop momentum, Salzman dusts off some befuddled-foreigner routines. Disappointing.
Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1990
ISBN: 0679735461
Page count: 280pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 1990


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