The Monkey King

Wallace Nolasco is lucky enough, or so he believes, to marry into the affluent Poon family, headed by the tyrannical Mr. Poon, whose vast holdings are matched by his miserly ways. Mr. Poon is happy to marry off May Ling, his daughter by his second concubine, to Wallace. Though Wallace is not a full-blooded Chinese--no respectable Chinese would marry the child of a concubine--and though he is poor, he can be expected, with May Ling’s cooperation, to produce children who will someday manage Mr. Poon’s substantial fortune and venerate him after he is dead. The subject of offspring is close to Mr. Poon’s heart, since Ah Lung, his son, is a wastrel, and his two legitimate daughters are unmarriageable.

What seems to be a mutually advantageous arrangement soon turns out to be a disappointment. Wallace finds the food meager, the house drafty and depressing, and its inhabitants rude and disagreeable. He is awakened early by the sounds of Eldest Sister’s gargling and kept awake all night by the sorrowful cries of May Ling’s nephew. Furthermore, the grasping Mr. Poon seems to have reneged on his daughter’s dowry. Still, Wallace manages to turn his fortunes around with a combination of originality and doggedness.

Timothy Mo’s first novel, a comic and delightful Chinese comedy of manners only now published in the United States, is deftly and confidently written; his characters are as unforgettable as their insane English patois, which throws tense and number to the winds and turns English idioms on their ears (and the reader’s): “OK, Nolasco. That the way you want it, that the way you damn well go and get it.” And he does. The reader, too, will get all he wants, and more.