296 pages. $19.95.
The American Dream is a powerful allure for all of us -- buespecially for immigrants. Traditionally, the United States has been home to those longing for a different order. These people have been a great source of strength and renewal. They have come, paid their dues and contributed to our ever resurgent economic growth.
But the American Dream has a dark side, too. We have traded a class system based upon birth for one based upon money. The resultant devotion to Mammon can have disastrous consequences. Herein hangs the tale.
Gish Jen's first novel is fresh and well-paced. The protagonist, Lai Fu Chang (a.k.a. Ralph Chang) comes to the United States in 1947 to study for his Ph.D. in engineering. Ralph is a short-sighted, self-centered pragmatist. This prevents him from gaining a long vision of his life and is the source of his troubles. His savior is his sister, Teresa.
The first time Teresa saves Ralph is when he has "dropped out" and is on the verge of becoming a bum. She recommends him to her friend Helen. Helen and Ralph wed. The three move into a dilapidated walk-up in New York's Chinatown. Teresa studies to become a physician. Ralph works on his Ph.D., and Helen has babies and dreams.
Second time: Teresa helps Ralph buy a house as the family (plus sister) moves into a new subdivision.
Third time: Teresa has an affair with the chairman of the department where Ralph teaches and aids in her brother's receiving tenure.
Fourth time: Teresa (who has moved out) moves back to save Ralph's marriage -- and perhaps his sanity.
What does Ralph do in return? Nothing. Early on, he confronts two people at a dinner: Old Chow, a Chinese immigrant who becomes modestly successful in academe by hard work and self-effacement, and Grover Ding, a Chinese-American who made a lot of money the quick way-- through shady business dealings.
It is to Ralph's demerit that the latter way appeals most to him. Ralph becomes obsessed with social mobility via money, and leaves teaching to run a takeout chicken place. Making money and more money becomes his vision of life; any and all means are acceptable. The obsession with ends leads to taking unacceptable short cuts: cheating. The family weakens and cheats: Ralph cheats on restaurant receipts, and Helen and Teresa cheat on marriage vows. Cheating is the means to become "a typical American" (viz., a typical rich American, as on television).
Much of this is well-executed. Ms. Jen's writing style is a pleasure. The presentation of the rise and fall of Ralph does show much of what is wrong with a myopic self-centeredness that can transform the American Dream into something else. Also, there are several scenes that ring true to first-generation Chinese immigrants. She captures the interplay between cultures with a soft touch that is humorous and enlightening. These scenes -- especially the first hundred pages -- are the novel's principal strength.
At the same time, the character of Ralph is too extreme. His excesses (especially toward the end) make him highly unsympathetic. We pull for him because he is an immigrant underdog. But when he "arrives" more is needed to make him a vehicle that deserving of our sympathy.
This excess in the character extends to the plotting, which gets out of hand at the end of the book and results in an awkward, and unbelievable, ending. Ms. Jen violates the standards she has so carefully constructed.
"Typical American" should sell well because it contains some vivid insights into the American Dream. I am hopeful that Ms. Jen's next book will be more even and conclude with a more convincing resolution.
Mr. Boylan is a poet and novelist who teaches at Marymount University in Arlington, Va.