Reviewed by Jan Worth-Nelson (Tonga 76-78)
Clifford Garstang calls What the Zhang Boys Know a “novel in stories,” and it’s an appropriate characterization. The 12 linked tales all take place in and around a sprawling condo complex in Washington, D.C. called the Nanking Mansion, and the characters within compellingly weave in and out of all the intersecting plots.
The big old edifice serves effectively as narrative frame and plot architecture. As in any good novel, the inhabitants of Nanking Mansion, a colorful mix of artists, writers, young professionals and dislocated immigrants, are absorbing and complex. One roots for them, cares about them, despairs of their tragedies major and minor, and celebrates their vindications.
In the launching story, we meet everyone in the midst of a complicated melee in the building’s central gallery. As the fracas unfolds, we learn that the boys of the title, bi-racial Wesley and Simon Zhang, have lost their Caucasian mother. She had been killed in an auto accident and their Chinese father, Feng-qi, whose name his American colleagues can pronounce only as “Frank,” is desperate for help.
He finally takes the boys to Shanghai to retrieve his widowed father, and the grandpa comes back — implacable, out of his element, sorrowful — to cook and care for the children. Though he speaks little English, and the boys, little of the grandfather’s language, his role in the family is crucial and endearing.
The boys are the only children in the “Mansion” — doted over by some, avoided by others as they noisily explore and observe. There’s a soupcon of wildness in the air — both among the stoner bohemians and the children, whose father barely manages them.
Within each condo reside secrets, betrayals, and kindness. Doors open and doors close. Families split apart and new combinations evolve. Love affairs begin and love affairs end. A cherished dog escapes and is lost; his gay owner languishes in sorrow and leaves his partner for a time. And then comes back.
Meanwhile, even though the condo complex is a coalescing device for the stories, one begins to understand it is not a wholly stable setting. It wobbles uneasily on the edge of gentrification, with a “bad neighborhood” nipping away at its doorways. It’s owned by a shadowy tycoon and managed by a possibly shady vulgarian hiding things in the basement. The Zhang boys encounter a couple of urchin toughs in the back alley. Paintings appear in the main hallway and disappear, alternately loved and mocked. Within the aging walls, the residents wrestle like humans everywhere with cruelties of fate, bad decisions, yearning for love and loneliness.
Throughout, we are treated to Garstang’s writing, which is fluid and lovely — effective in style and substance. Throughout, the writer’s voice is compassionate and clear-eyed.
In one of my favorite stories, “A Hole in the Wall,” Aloysius, a young black attorney not long up from the streets, gets tired of waiting for his promised renovations and in a moment of stress and abandon pounds open a hole in his brick wall. Immediately, pigeons invade. He is almost overwhelmed by what he’s done, not sure what to do next, or what materials he needs to close the hole. But he’s dogged, if only minimally adequate to the task. In the middle of it, his father, whom he’s never known, appears unannounced and, finding no welcome from the son, leaves a business card. The birds keep coming. Meanwhile, the Zhang grandpa drops the boys off without explanation and rushes away. Startled, Aloysius knows he has to care for them, and eventually enlists their help, in a lovely scene, gently herding the birds back outside.
This story illustrates not just sureness in character development and narrative richness, but a fine sense of structure. And it provides an example of one thing Gerstang does so well. He really knows how to end a story. In every case, the last lines feel perfect — exquisite in rounding out the story arcs and their often poetic flow. This one concludes,
He reaches through the hole in the wall, holds his hand steady, feels the soothing breeze on his arm, and lets the card fall away. It flutters and spins and drifts and finally, comes to rest in the chaos of the world.
It’s a great ending.
The last story comes back around to the grieving Zhang Feng-Qi as his little family finally departs the Nanking Mansion for a nicer suburban house with a garden. The chaotic locale thus finally recedes, but a reader understands one can never quite move away from history, with its many wounds and promises.
And in the 21st Century, what we call home and who becomes our family is constantly changing, shaped by our sorrows, our loneliness, our need for love and all that it takes to survive. We also need good stories. Maybe that is what the Zhang boys — and certainly the gifted Clifford Garstang — know.
Reviewer Jan Worth-Nelson recently retired from 26 years at the University of Michigan – Flint, where she was a writing teacher and for the last three years, director of the Thompson Center for Learning and Teaching. She has just taken over as editor of East Village Magazine, a much-beloved monthly publication in her longtime hometown, and is sharing duties on this project with her RPCV husband Ted Nelson (Turkey 1964-67).