December 17, 2009

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A Good Fall: Stories, by Ha Jin (Pantheon Books, 240 pages, $24.95, 2009)
You know you’re reading a damn fine collection of short fiction when you finish a story about a young man living with three Asian prostitutes (“The House Behind the Weeping Cherry”), and there’s no one around to share your awe and excitement with, except your six-year-old daughter, so you give her a quick synopsis anyway. And then she tells you that she prefers Junie B. Jones. “Someday,” you say to her.

Every story in Ha Jin’s newest collection, A Good Fall, leaves the reader with this need to tell someone about it, as if you’ve been privy to something unusually beautiful and riveting. And you have.

Born in China, Ha Jin came to the United States in 1984 and has since written all of his award-winning novels and stories in English, his second language. Like Nabokov, it’s these writers who make us all feel a little embarrassed by our own shortcomings with our native tongue. But have no doubt, while reading these 12 stories, it’s quite evident you’re in the hands of virtuoso. The language is simple and clear and accomplishes everything good writing should accomplish. And at its finest, the prose is poetic.

As with any well-crafted collection of stories, there are thematic threads that work to establish cohesion between the pieces and tie them together. All set in Flushing, N.Y., the characters in all the stories are either Chinese immigrants — both legal and illegal — or first-generation Chinese-Americans with close ties to their homeland. The characters struggle deeply with assimilation and their cultural identity. In “Children as Enemies,” an older Chinese couple is mortified and shamed when their grandchildren change their names to sound more Americanized. Likewise, in “Shame,” a young Chinese man hides an old college professor in his apartment, protecting him from the Chinese consulate and deportation.

While the Chinese-American experience is at the forefront of these stories, it’s the characters’ humanity and their search for happiness that are the real sell here. In “The Beauty,” a man, suspicious that his wife may be unfaithful, hires a private detective and discovers some incredible secrets from her past. In fact, many of the characters in these stories are conflicted by love and loyalty. In “Temporary Love,” a “wartime couple” — a couple who has become lovers while waiting for their spouses to come over from China — battles despondency and loss when the woman’s husband finally arrives in America.

The collection, perhaps, can be nicely summarized by a line from the title story, “A Good Fall,” where a monk is contemplating taking his own life after finding himself destitute and threatened with deportation. It reads, “Life is precious and full of wonderful things in spite of the bitterness and suffering.”

Not a bad thing to remember this holiday season. Ha Jin’s new collection is a winner, and highly, highly recommended.  ANate Graziano