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STEER TOWARD ROCK


In 1993, Fae Myenne Ng, a Chinese-American writer who had grown up in San Francisco's Chinatown among sewing circles and kitchen knives, produced a first novel, "Bone," of authoritative power. A story of immigration and assimilation, suicide and escape, "Bone" was gristle, tenderness, viscera, spice. It was unflinching and spare, a dirge that began with the simplest declaration: "We were a family of three girls." You could taste the marrow in "Bone." Its essence rose up, as if from a pot of pungent soup.

On the radio, Ng was self-effacing, gracious. At readings she was startlingly generous with the long lines of fans who helped make her book a national best seller. She was—no question—the real deal, obsessed not with celebrity but with getting the story just so. She was the woman who would later write, "No story matters till it is finished and the only stories that need telling are the ones whose endings do not fulfill us." 

It took Ng 15 years to produce her second novel, "Steer Toward Rock," from which that quote is taken, and those who privilege themselves by reading it through will not for one moment wonder why. "Steer Toward Rock" is Chinatown again, immigration, confession, disappointment, wreckage and salvage. It is relentlessly fierce and unstintingly lovely, another book that declares itself at the outset:

"The woman I loved wasn't in love with me; the woman I married wasn't a wife to me. Ilin Cheung was my wife on paper. Indeed, she belonged to Yi-Tung Szeto. . . . In debt, I also belonged to him. He was my father, paper, too." 

Whereas "were" was the operative word in the opening of "Bone," "wasn't" sets the tone for "Steer Toward Rock," whose primary hero is a man known as Jack Szeto Moon and whose primary action takes place in a McCarthy-era San Francisco riddled by the relationships born of complicated Immigration laws. Jack's position in Chinatown is precarious from the moment he arrives on the S.S. President Coolidge. His papers are fraudulent. His "blood father" is in fact a gangster-quality adoptive father who has brought 19-year-old Jack into the country as a means (yes, it's complicated) of securing himself a second wife. "I listed you as a married man," the father tells Jack. "One day that immigration slot will be used to bring in my Replacement Wife." 

It isn't long, however, before Jack has ambitions of his own: a woman he wants to claim, a family he hopes to build, a confession he's willing to make to secure his independence. Employed by his "fake" father as a butcher, Jack sees in himself a certain skill, a mastery, that allows him to imagine a coming happiness:

"I read meat. I moved my fingers through marbled flesh like a vulture's beak, I fanned muscle from tendon and found by feel the soft flank that was gold. I angled my knife tip under the head of a vein and yanked it out like coarse thread. I glided blade along bone so that flesh peeled away like petals of magnolia." 

But it isn't just Jack's fake father who threatens to thwart Jack's dreams—it's also the woman with whom he falls in love and with whom he has a daughter. Joice Qwan does not wish to marry Jack, and nothing will persuade her. Even when Jack puts his life on the line, Joice refuses to honor his love, leaving him with a child to raise. 

"Steer Toward Rock," then, becomes most essentially a father-daughter story, an almost story—a sometimes-violent story steamed through with tenderness. "Your girl wants to hold a common story with you," one of Jack's friends warns him during the difficult child-rearing years. "Don't make her sacrifice love to chase you. Fix that. Otherwise life doesn't lead life." 

In "Steer Toward Rock," Ng takes her time, says what she truly means to say, stares complication straight in the face, stares it down. One feels her attacking this fiction-writing business as if it's the most important chance any of us will ever get to put the truth on paper, and one is left—it can't be helped—in awe of her talent. Ng exposes us, she makes us vulnerable, to line after line like this one: "If her father had lived, would he have taught her that desire wasn't a road to knowledge, that love was never ideal, that yearning was not hope?" 

 

Beth Kephart
Chicago Tribune, May 17, 2008