Monday, April 26, 2010

Forgotten Classic: Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book

Written by the award-winning Maxine Hong Kingston, this book is what I call a "forgotten classic" -- a novel whose artistry and entertainment value deserve more attention. It's a book I have treasured ever since it was first published in 1989. (Yes, I proudly own a first edition.)

The story that Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book tells reminds me of a line from Jim Harrison's novella, Legends of the Fall: "Everyone wishes a measure of mystery in their life that they have done nothing in particular to deserve." Isn't it true that we all want some magic in our lives, no matter who we are?

Well, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book is about someone who works hard to fill his life with magic. Set in the heady days of 1960's San Francisco, this is a bawdy, nonstop picaresque seen through the eyes of its hero: Wittman Ah Sing, recent graduate of UC Berkeley and aspiring poet/playwright.

What, exactly is a picaresque? It's a story in which a person of "low character" engages in adventures, usually of a satirical nature, as he or she travels through a corrupt society. The great masterpiece Don Quixote is a picaresque, and Wittman Ah-Sing is, among other things, a quixotic character, a hapless romantic whose heroism exists largely inside his own head. In simpler terms, Tripmaster Monkey is about a funny & crazy young man moving through a funny & crazy world and, gradually, gaining wisdom.

For all its humor, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book begins on a serious note, with music:
"Maybe it comes from living in San Francisco, city of clammy humors and foghorns that warn and warn -- omen, o-o-men, o dolorous omen, o dolors of omens -- and not enough sun, but Wittman Ah Sing considered suicide every day."
This marks our hero as an existentialist, but aren't all serious artists also philosophers of one sort or another? Not to worry, though: Wittman always rejects death. In fact, this is a book about always choosing life, and Wittman Ah-Sing has a mission.

This young man's self-appointed quest is the staging of a massive conglomeration of Chinese myth & literature starring himself & everyone he knows. (Perhaps it was an early inspiration for the title character in Wes Anderson's Rushmore?) Wittman casts himself in the role of the trickster-god from which the novel gets its title, and it's a role that infects his everyday life as he constantly blends anarchic mischief with the verbal artistry of the American poet who is his (mis-spelled?) namesake.

On the way, he marries and falls in love (though not to the same person), extemporizes hilarious "talk-stories" that get him both into & out of trouble, and learns not a little about himself & what it means to be an American who just happens to also be Chinese. Kingston has woven a vivid tapestry on which Wittman's antics (and heroics) are portrayed in language that never fails to delight. And the conclusion of this tale, in which Wittman's improvisational culture-clashing epic is actually staged, is nothing less than inspirational, riffing the archetypes of Chinese mythology into something as American as jazz.

Kingston has been criticized by stuffy eggheads for "corrupting" traditional Chinese lore. This is nonsense. What she has done is fashion an entertaining & engaging account of how one young man grapples with his heritage and his circumstances in order to create himself. Though the story borrows heavily from Chinese tradition, it relies just as heavily on American literary history.

And Kingston isn't silent on the matter of cultural appropriation. Wittman Ah-Sing is constantly commenting on various injustices, and, in the book's final chapter, he has a long verbal rant on the inherent racism of American cinema, hilariously skewering such icons as Charlie Chan, JFK, and James Bond.

But don't let all the cultural trappings & criticism fool you. Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book is the classic human tale of a person forging their unique identity through art, vision, and plain old hard work. Those of you who know what a "fake book" is will understand Wittman Ah-Sing's efforts immediately. He is taking old standards and making them his own.

As funny & fun-filled as this novel is (and it is bursting with one rib-splitting & heart-breaking anecdote after another, like the one where Wittman fantasizes about turning himself into a human nuclear detonator), it's also deeply serious about issues as basic as identity (both individual & national) and as topical as war. Without giving anything away, I can tell you (as I've already told you), that Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book ends as it began: with Wittman Ah-Sing choosing life. It's a sentence we should all share.

Think of it as The Joy Luck Club with more brains, more heart, and less syrup. Think of it as the Great American Classic that it surely is. Read Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, and laugh your way to enlightenment.

by Maxine Hong Kingston

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