Ding explores the roots of anti-immigrant racism in his debut novel.
Two men, Sam and Diego, grow up on opposite sides of the American dream. Sam is the son of a Detroit-area factory worker; Diego, the son of a Mexican immigrant in thrall to a drug cartel. Sam’s father loses his job when the factory closes, while Diego’s father struggles to free his family from a life of gang violence; Sam ends up xenophobic, and Diego, a ward of the state. The two describe their lives in alternating first-person accounts until Sam moves to San Diego, where he transforms into a hateful immigration-enforcement officer with epiphanies such as, “How could we let people just come over here and harass families?....And most weren’t violent? What about the ones that were?” Diego, meanwhile, takes up residence with a foster family that’s a caricature of rural dysfunction, including a tattoo-encrusted foster father named Zeke who beats him with belts and even a broomstick. Ding’s prose is clear and occasionally evocative. However, he sometimes succumbs to clichés (“He felt the stinging breath of Sebastian the Beast on his neck”) and overwriting (“It was an empty, dirty cave—a desiccated temple dedicated to the disheartened and disenfranchised men who forewent education for the promises of stability and a good wage”). The awkwardness of some sentences seems to have resulted from inadequate proofreading, as in “And I felt well-prepared to tackle it I.” Although attempting to expose the origins of racism is an admirable goal, many readers may find its insights obvious—for example, that anti-immigrant rage is often fueled by economic turmoil. In the end, the book becomes a passion play with characters that are mere functions of the narrative: Sam hates foreign people, Diego is one. The book’s climax, like San Diego itself, is visible from miles away.
A predictable tale of immigration that offers easy answers to complex questions about national identity and racial hatred.