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this is a bust

30 may 2013

This is a Bust is that rare police novel that isn't at the same time really a crime novel. Its milieu is more Barney Miller than NYPD Blue. Protagonist Robert Chow, the first-person narrator, isn't even assigned to investigate crimes. As one of the very few Chinese-American New York policemen in 1976, he spends most of his time getting his picture taken with Chinatown businessmen, and writing parking tickets as he strolls up and down the Bowery conspicuously displaying his ethnicity.

I liked This is a Bust very much, and I should also confess that Barney Miller is one of my all-time favorite TV series. The method of both is to use the precinct office as a window onto a larger culture. In Barney Miller, the flow of petty crime and domestic conflict that filtered through the Twelfth was the material of thoughtful situation comedy. In This is a Bust, not bound to a single set, the patrolman on his beat becomes the ideal lens for perceiving a slice of time in the history of Chinatown.

And This is a Bust is indeed a historical novel. 1976 seems like yesterday to me, but to readers much younger than 50, it's an era that survives in faded newsprint and washed-out color film, not in active memory. Writing a historical novel about the not-all-that distant past is a challenge that Lin brings off well: there are a few minor anachronisms, but some of them (such as Chow saying that a given situation "sucks") might be explained by the narrative perspective itself: perhaps Chow is telling this story from the vantage point, and in the dialect of, 2007.

This is cop story as condition-of-Chinatown novel, with a wide cast of representative characters: chess hustlers, toyshop owners, dim-sum-palace restaurateurs and their exploited waitstaff, bodega rats, gangstas, Communists, the Kuomintang, benevolent societies, overachieving yuppies, underachieving bakerymaids, and Chow himself, a Vietnam veteran who has had a drinking problem ever since the war.

Generational conflict is a staple, really the staple, of the Asian-American novel, and This is a Bust is no exception. Chow represents the first wave of Chinese-Americans to be born in New York after immigration policies relaxed in the mid-20th century. He's surrounded by older Cantonese men, younger immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the looming influx of people and money from the mainland. (Here 1976, with the passing of the senior Communist leaders and the beginnings of a recognition of mainland China, is an important watershed for the development of Chinatowns in the US.)

Lin has a lot of fun with prolepsis, the device whereby you can make characters in 1976 refer to things that happen over the next 30 years. Or again, maybe Robert Chow has fun with it. Will people ever play Dungeons and Dragons? Will they buy expensive fancy coffee drinks on every corner? Will they have phones you can walk around with (and will those phones be Made in China)? Of course, but it's still fun to see characters in 1976 wondering about such eventualities.

And somewhere in the middle of all this social fiction is a minor but moving murder mystery, plus other touches of noirish violence and despair. Though on the whole, This is a Bust is an upbeat novel. In many ways, it's more blast than bust: a character confronts the evils inside and outside his narrowly defined social role, and transcends them. You enjoy seeing him succeed.

Lin, Ed. This is a Bust. New York: Kaya Press [Muae Publishing], 2007.