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Sunday, Nov. 23, 2008

Bite-'em-up exploits in lower Manhattan


YEAR OF THE DOG by Henry Chang. New York, Soho Press, Inc., 2008, 231 pp., $24 (cloth)

Set in lower Manhattan's Chinese enclave, Henry Chang's latest novel is a sequel following the exploits of NYPD detective Jack Yu, who made his debut in "Chinatown Beat" in 2006.

Resuming where the previous book left off — in which a kept woman's murder and robbery of her patron spurred a gang war — Chang's narrative depicts the travails and tribulations of the city's ethnic Chinese, who are made to appear less concerned with peer pressure and social acceptance than they are obsessed with material success.

"Year of the Dog" begins with Yu arriving at the scene of the carbon monoxide suicide-murder of an affluent Taiwanese couple and their two sons — the reasons for the deaths are never fully explained, but hint at economic losses so irreparable that the parents saw no recourse except suicide.

Its depictions of nihilistic urban violence make this work vaguely reminiscent of the 1981 Robert Daley novel (and 1985 Mickey Rourke blockbuster film) "Year of the Dragon." Protagonist Yu's world-weary view of life and lack of close human relationships alternate with suppressed anger and resentment, as he struggles to exorcise the ghosts of his unhappy Chinatown childhood and overcome discrimination by fellow cops.

On Christmas Eve, Yu is summoned to join the hunt for a missing teenager who failed to return from delivering a take-out to a "gangsta" customer at a public housing tract. A nasty shootout — and bite-out, with a pit bull terrier — ensues. While being treated for multiple wounds, Yu learns that the customer had clubbed the boy to death and then nonchalantly consumed the Chinese meal the victim had delivered by bicycle in a snowstorm.

There were more than thirty incidences of blunt-force damage. . . [Chang writes] Jack took a breath, closed the report. In his head he was hearing grievous groaning and sobbing, the banshee wail welling up around the sad street of funeral parlors across from the playgrounds of his youth.

As in Chang's earlier work, the narrative is strewn with Asian desperados who contend for territory, power and illegal sources of revenue. The parts that focus on battles between the established native-born triad syndicates with ties to Guangdong and Hong Kong, who disdain the hungry and lawless newcomers from Fujian or Vietnam, are especially well done.

Despite this work's polemic tone, Chang scores high points for characterization, and is successful in the way he combines police procedural and ethnic detective formulas. To keep it going as a series, though, he'll have to diversify his themes and make it less painful to empathize with his protagonist.



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