Fixer Chao by Han Ong – review

Rating: 9/10 ★★★★★★★★★☆ Title: Fixer Chao
Author: Han Ong
Genre: Satire, dark humor
Price: US$15.00
Other Information/Warnings: violence, dark humor, murder
Summary (from the publisher): William Paulinha, a Filipino street hustler, is in the early days of self-imposed reform when he meets Schem C., a failed writer ostracized by New York City’s literati.  Shem recruits Paulinha to retaliate against the community that spurned him, and under Shem’s guidance, Paulinha becomes Master Chao, a revered practitioner of Feng Shui–the Chinese art of creating a harmonious environment that promises its adherents peace and prosperity.  As this latter-day confidence man cuts a swath through upper-crust society, his biting observations form a comic picaresque of class resentment and revenge.

My Review: I have been finally working my way through reviews I’ve meant to write for ages for books I consider essential gay reads, and the first up is one of my favorites.

An outstanding literary debut by playwright Han Ong, Fixer Chao manages to be a brilliant satire of the excesses of elitist Manhattanites in the late 90s, while at the same time managing to be a riveting portrait of a failed American dream.  Darkly funny and at times very touching, this novel delves into many themes and is a roller coaster of a ride for both us and our protagonist

William Narcisco Paulinha is a simple, humble man, an immigrant for whom the American Dream has fallen terribly short.  Smarter than his circumstances would indicate, William is a thoughtful man, one who would rather devalue himself than others, a mind-set completely opposite of the cut-throat world of Manhattan in which he lives.  These days, he types manuscripts for aspiring writers, a much better job than his previous outing as a hustler turning tricks in the Port Authority bus terminal. Lonely and frustrated, William is above all a man who wants to do good, and he is on the verge of turning his life around when a fateful meeting takes place.

One night, at a seedy bar William frequents, he meets Shem, an abrasive, bitter man recently thrown out of his home by his wife, the daughter of a famous novelist. Shem is a social climber (though not terribly good at it), a struggling novelist and a relatively unsuccessful author of celebrity profiles.  Having never quite fit into Manhattan’s elite, Shem has a plan, a way to exact revenge upon those who see themselves better, smarter and more talented than poor old Shem.  Knowing the lemming like quality of the city’s upper crust, Shem knows exactly where to hit them, right in their own naiveté. His targets have all the right clothing, the perfect cars, the buzz-inducing interior designers, but most of all they have the desire–no, the absolute need–to be at the forefront of the latest trends, every hot “new thing.”  Shem has everything he needs to succeed, everything except the Chinese man who can pull it all off.

Shem propositions William to take part and become William Chao, a Feng Shui expert from the mysterious East.  Shem explains that all William need do is learn a little about the ancient art and ingratiate himself to the elitists to whom Shem will introduce him.  From there, it is simple…enter into their homes and do exactly what they want. Arrange their homes to capture the chi, make their living spaces a conduit for successes even beyond their own imaginations.  And when he has won their trust, when their lives are on the upswing because of Master Chao’s remarkable gift, pull the rug out from under them by doing one thing wrong.  Leave out one simple aspect–a mirror is the wrong place, a bed facing an open doorway–something small that will cause their lives to unravel.

William agrees and embarks upon an adventure that works perfectly as he–no, his alter ego, the Fixer Chao–is lauded and rises to the level of celebrity, the man who can make everything right, the Master whose ancient art can only improve one’s life.  But just as William becomes enamored with his new persona, with his life amongst the well-to-dos, and starts believing that he does have the “gift,” Shem reminds him that it is time to turn the tables.  A deal is a deal after all.

Slowly, Fixer Chao weaves subtle mistakes into his work, things no one–especially those who truly know nothing about so mysterious and alluring an art–will notice.  And lives begin to unravel.  Is it because Master Chao has the power, or is it simply the upper crust’s own foibles leading to their downfall? Even William is not quite sure.  But just when everything is working perfectly, William meets Kendo, the moody, sexy, appealing son of one of Fixer Chao’s most famous clients.  And when Kendo catches on to William’s real identity and the game he is playing, more than just Kendo’s mother’s life begins to fall apart.

For me, Fixer Chao was a book I just didn’t want to see end.  Ong’s style is seamless, his words deftly drawing not only a caricature of the time, but a rich life into which one is absorbed.  He balances the opulence and excesses of the high-life in Manhattan with the dreary reality of William’s real life, and in the process creates two completely opposite worlds co-existing in the same space.  The character of William is almost an anti-hero, someone who is terribly flawed, but someone for whom you just want everything to turn out right.  And when William meets Kendo, the spark, the attraction is palpable.  You just want them both to get together, get away from the shackles of their respective lives.  But this isn’t a fairy-tale.  There isn’t a happily ever after here.

Ong has a masterful hand at the prose, rich without ever falling into excesses.  He draws his characters fully, with a deft hand, and makes us care about them despite ourselves.  The result is a truly satisfying story with wonderful social commentary.  It is a story about a twisted sort of love…the love of self, the love of the spotlight, the love of success, but over all, this is a biting satire about the lengths anyone can go to when they are tempted…or naive enough to believe.  This isn’t a romance by any stretch, but if you like your gay men complex, funny and a little bit messy, this is highly, highly recommended and one of my essential gay-themed books.