Monday, May 25, 2009

Necessary Tension: Henry Chang's Classic Noir, YEAR OF THE DOG (2008)

Soho Crime brought out Chang's second Jack Yu book in November, YEAR OF THE DOG, and it's a solid sequel to his debut New York City-based police procedural, CHINATOWN BEAT. It opens with a short description of the characteristics of the Dog as sign for the 11th year in the 12-year repeating Chinese cycle: likeable, fearless, charismatic, the Dog endows the year with masculine characteristics of struggle, perseverance, and faith.

And there's no question that Jack Yu needs all of those, as he starts the holiday season in the Ninth Precinct, new to him, where his Chinese-ness is less part of the fabric of each day's work. At least, that was the idea. Back in the 0-5 (in CHINATOWN BEAT) he'd seen his ethnicity be both blessing and curse, as it labeled him and set him up for discriminatory treatment, while also equipping him to understand the Chinatown networks and criminal paths more readily. Probably the toughest part was the unending conflict with his friends from childhood, Tat Louie and Wing Lee. The three youths had been so close that they considered themselves blood brothers, hingdaai. (Chang uses italics for Chinese terms most of the time; he also uses them for inner thoughts of whichever character is at center stage, as well as occasionally for emphasis or for "word as word." Yes, it's a bit confusing. But bear with it -- the tale is worth reading.) Tat Louie heads up a criminal association, and his connection with Jack keeps biting the cop.

In YEAR OF THE DOG that connection finally resolves. But first the darkness and cold permeate every aspect of Jack's life, from his dead father to his strong but confused ladyfriend Alexandra to the drum roll of death and destruction beating on him. Chang crafts a classic noir thriller as he imbues the holidays -- Christmas, American New Year, Chinese New Year -- with desolation, threat, and desperation. No question, the gang life and the housing projects where it thrives foster this set of horrors. Quality of life is subzero, even when there's plenty of cash on hand from robberies and extortion. Behind the scenes is the poison of the snakeheads, too -- the criminal corporations that bring illegal immigrants to the land of plenty, then hold them captive for a lifetime through a global reach to family members trapped in China.

Chang's intense plotting is complicated by a need to provide a map to the complexity that Jack takes for granted: Chinese of various geographical and linguistic roots, who've arrived in separate waves in New York (as they have also on the West Coast; Jack and the criminals around him are still dealing with a West Coast portion of the earlier book). And in this Asian version of the Sopranos, family connections come before all else. Until they snap and backfire, of course.

Jack's first holiday deaths come from a Taiwanese family that appears to have died in a murder-suicide. In parallel, Tat Louie and his gang are suffering a string of robberies that appear to be inside jobs -- a quick way for the gang to lose face, with losses outside its control. New York is a huge city, but the Chinese populations in it are so interwoven that it's just a matter of time before Lucky Louie's problems become Jack's also.

And yet it's an unassociated and very nasty piece of violence, based securely in racism, hate, and drug use, that tears into Jack before the collision with Tat Louie can take place; he survives, but the main victim doesn't, and couldn't, considering how he was abused and beaten:
Jack didn't know if it was because of the side effects from the painkillers, but he felt sickened. He knew that this horror went on every day in this city, in America, in the world. ... Jack took a breath, closed the report. In his head he was hearing grievous groaning and sobbing, the banshee wail welling up around the sad street of funeral parlors across from the playgrounds of his youth.

Meanwhile, the dying weeks of a small-time Chinese bookie are about to coalesce into the book's rare moments of sweetness, as well as becoming the catalyst for Lucky Louie's propulsion into Jack's duty roster. Sai Go is the bookie, and he has terminal cancer. Long since isolated and without family, he has only his "business" and the people who meet his needs -- for food, haircuts, and such. Through his grief and fear, clarity emerges:
An underground life full of careless sins, chasing the dragon of good fortune. The dragon was devouring him from inside now. All part of the same evil. He was part of the trail of dirty money that travels in a circle.

By the time the firecrackers and street dancing of the Chinese New Year arrive, to mark the turn of year from Dog to Pig, Jack Yu will know a lot more about what has threatened him and the families around him. Chang offers a twist of hope at the end of the volume -- but if you've been reading carefully, you know that Jack Yu's life has just set him up for further danger and risk.

Developing a series and at the same time opening up the complexities of Asian life in New York City has taken Chang onto challenging ground. I look forward to more from this writer, and to further exploration of how he braids the danger, despair, and courage that make up policing in any congested urban area -- New York to San Francisco.

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