BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Phoenix Eyes and Other Stories by Russell Charles Leong [in aOnline]

Phoenix EyesIn the title poem of Russell Leong’s 1993 poetry collection, The Country of Dreams and Dust (West End Press), an epic work encompassing the history of the Chinese in America, Leong alludes to what now appears as the title story of his new short story collection, Phoenix Eyes and Other Stories. The original poem refers to the devastation of AIDS: “In Asian families, you just disappear./Your family rents a small room for you./They feed you lunch./They feed you dinner./Rice, fish, vegetables.”

Seven years later, in  the eponymous short story,“Phoenix Eyes,” the narrator Terence mourns the death of his close friend P., who introduced him to the life of the international call line as one of its high-priced pretty young men available to Asian high-rollers. Echoing the poem, Terence describes P.’s family: “The family whisked the body back to Taipei. No funeral services were held in the States. … In Asian families, you would just disappear. Your family, if you have one, rents a small room for you. They feed you lunch and dinner.”

That sense of fluid connection, from one piece to another, is dominant throughout Leong’s stories. His writing is spare, flowing, often gentle, in sharp juxtaposition to his stories’ content. Indeed, what binds his stories and characters therein is an undeniable, sometimes jarring sense of dislocation. His people are in and out of relationships, disconnected from their families, their cultures, their homelands, even their own selves.

The collection is divided into three distinct sections which underscores the sense of dislocation. The first part, “Leaving,” is populated with characters who have escaped from what was familiar, whether a homeland, family, a relationship. In the disturbing story, “Daughters,” a man watching his daughter run into the schoolyard is reminded of another young girl from his past, a child forced into prostitution by her own family, who escapes the brothel to which she was indentured, comes to the States as a rich man’s possession, and returns to prostitution as the only life she knows.

In the middle section “Samsara,” which refers to the eternal cycle of life, death, and rebirth, the stories within highlight what makes the life cycle possible – sex. Anonymous lovers, multiple lovers, illicit lovers, impossible lovers. In “Hemispheres,” the gay narrator contemplates three separate, earnest offers to father a child. In the campy “Eclipse,” written as a one-act play, Professor Dick Kusai (“kusai” means stinky in Japanese) interviews a thug hustler and his transsexual girlfriend as “research” for his study on sexual representation among Asian Americans.

Don’t expect any happy endings in the final section, “Paradise.” Each of the stories is populated with lost, hopeless souls. In “The Western Paradise of Eddie Bin,” the title character loses his wife, his business, his home, and even himself. In “Phoenix Eyes,” life is a cycle of meaningless, endless paid-for sex. In “No Bruce Lee,” the 40-year-old failure is a man with nowhere to go. And in “Where Do People Live Who Never Die?” a young man returns to China in search of answers about his lost parents.

In the end, every one of  Leong’s characters are people on the fringe, outcasts from the mainstream. Something Asian American readers, especially, will recognize.

Review: aOnline website, May 2000 [link and any printouts seem to have gone missing …]

Readers: Adult

Published: 2000


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