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Sunday, Nov. 10, 2002

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Coming of age in Heartbreak Hotel, New Jersey


By LEZA LOWITZ
WAYLAID, by Ed Lin. Kaya Press: New York, 2002, 169 pp., $12.95 (paper)

This terrific first novel by Chinese-American writer Ed Lin revolves around a 12-year-old coming of age in New Jersey in the 1970s, burdened by his virginity and motivated mainly by the desire to lose it.

The son of a working-class immigrant family from Taiwan who run a seedy hotel on the New Jersey shore, the unnamed narrator is emotionally fragile but hides it under a veneer of tough-guy posturing. He spends his day in the "prison" of the hotel, where he's "Top Dog" on the front desk, renting rooms to hookers and johns, lonely old men whose shirts smell like hotel soap, and families whose homes have been repossessed.

He cooks his own meals of eggs and Baco Bits, and tries to hold his own against the sleaze and sadness of the world, dreaming of getting laid even as he flips mattresses to hide stains, picks up porno magazines and cleans the squalid rooms for the next customer.

"Living in these hotel rooms was the worst thing I could imagine. Sleeping on old come stains. Looking at myself everyday in a medicine-cabinet mirror that had cracked from being slammed shut too many times. Keeping my clothes in a desk drawer with a Bible at the bottom. Watching TV with one hand on the antenna because it made the reception better. All that was in my future, assuming I couldn't find a way out."

Though he rejects his father's traditions, there is little opportunity to find something to fill the void because he has too much work to do, puttying holes in the rooms, fixing windows, ticking off items from the to-do list his father has taped to his closet door. But the boy wants to go to college, has higher ambitions -- even if his father's energies are focused solely on making a go of the motel.

"Next year I show you how to use blowtorch and soldering so you can make copper tubing we need for sinks. Very easy."
"All this stuff you're showing me you don't even need to go to college for. Doing this makes me forget everything I learn in school. Doing this makes me stupid. I don't want to work here for the rest of my life."
"You have to have some practical knowledge. You don't want to learn Chinese, you don't want to eat Chinese food, so you can learn how to fix floors."

The boy plays Atari for fun, and the highlight of his life is a missed glimpse of John Belushi splashing in the hotel's pool. His mother hates blacks, he hates Chinese. When customers make comments to him about Asians, their frame of reference is usually about one war or another -- Vietnam, Korea. The narrator, too, is a casualty, but he's also a survivor.

His main defense is his snarky sense of humor. What hasn't killed him has definitely beefed up his armor, like this exchange with a couple that comes to the hotel every summer.

" 'She puts her feet up on my back when I'm scrubbing the floors. It's abuse, I tell ya. You people know how to treat your women. Put them in their place in China.'
'Peter!'
'It's true, they can't even walk next to their husbands, they have to walk behind them.'
'They have such pretty dresses, the Chinese women. Doesn't your mother have any like that? She should wear them. Pretty and silk.'
The Fiorellos would always throw in something about China or Chinese food, as if I couldn't follow a conversation if they didn't."

This is not your geeky pocket-protector Asian protagonist, and it might not be the "model immigrant" story some people want to be told, but it is the real story people most need to hear. It could easily be a depressing tale, but Lin is as equally adept at humor as he is at pathos. The novel is written in a tone of deceptive flatness -- no Zen philosophizing or romantic yearnings here, but the realism fits the scene.

Losing one's virginity is an apt metaphor for fitting in, being accepted, and growing up, and Lin is well aware of the double meaning of the title. By turns crude, depressing, desperate and funny, "Waylaid" is a raw and honest portrayal of a boy's transformation to adulthood, an Asian-American hybrid of "Catcher in the Rye" and "Portnoy's Complaint."

If the book is autobiographical, Lin has come a long way from the shores of North Jersey. The author holds degrees in mining engineering and journalism from Columbia University, and hopefully hasn't set foot in a seedy hotel for a very long time. If this novel is an indication of his writing talents, they are prodigious. Can't wait to see what he writes next.



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