Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream Essay - Critical Essays

John Derbyshire

Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream

SEEING CALVIN COOLIDGE IN A DREAM is John Derbyshire’s first novel. The protagonist and narrator is T. C. Chai, a refugee from China. He is forty-eight when the novel opens, with a job as a bank vice president in New York City, a house in Queens, and a wife and daughter. He is an example of the American Dream come true.

Calvin Coolidge personifies for him the political system underlying this dream. Coolidge believed, in contrast to Chairman Mao, that it is better to govern oneself than to hand that task over to others. As a young man, Chai believed the opposite, and this led him to shoot someone in a civil conflict and almost rape a girl when he was a Red Guard. This latter incident showed him that the social revolution he was part of was fake.

He escapes to Hong Kong, where he becomes a messenger for a bank; after much work and study, he becomes an executive in the bank. He also has an affair with Selina Guo, who is betrothed to a Chinese restaurant owner in San Francisco.

When Selina leaves, Chai is distraught. He has twenty years to forget her, but at the end of that time, he finds her in Boston. He wants her again, but she refuses him, reminding him that the present, with its commitments, is more important than the past, with its losses.

Without his knowing that she knows about Selina, Chai’s wife Ding Li arranges for an actor who impersonates Calvin Coolidge, instead of Selina, to meet Chai in a hotel room. This Coolidge leads Chai to see that to govern oneself properly means to take responsibility for one’s choices. Chai’s choices have been democracy, capitalism, and family life. Fulfillment for Chai lies with these, Coolidge points out, not in sleeping with Selina.

How Chai brings this wisdom to bear on his outlook and circumstances rounds out the novel, the style of which, simple and articulate, keeps the reader interested in the narrator’s character and experiences throughout.

Sources for Further Study

Kirkus Reviews. LXIV, January 15, 1996, p. 84.

Library Journal. CXXI, March 1, 1996, p. 104.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, April 14, 1996, p. 7.

The New Yorker. LXXII, August 5, 1996, p. 75.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, January 22, 1996, p. 59.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXXII, Autumn, 1996, p. 130.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, March 10, 1996, p. 3.