Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Gus Lee is a second-generation Chinese American born to a family who immigrated from Shanghai, China, to the United States. After Lee’s mother passed away, his father married a non-Chinese woman who took it upon herself to “Americanize” Lee. Lee learned self-respect and self-discipline not at home, but in a boxing program at the YMCA. After attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and receiving his law degree from the University of California at Davis, Lee served as an Army command judge advocate and has been a deputy district attorney, deputy director for the California District Attorneys Association, and senior executive for the State Bar of California. His first two novels China Boy (1991) and Honor and Duty (1994) are semiautobiographical. The first book is based on the author’s experience as a second-generation Chinese American growing up in Chinese communities in California and the second one describes a Chinese American student’s struggle at West Point during the Vietnam War. Both books have received critical acclaims. Tiger’s Tail is Lee’s third novel and his first attempt to break away from the convention of autobiography.
Tiger’s Tail is a fast-paced, suspense-laden thriller. It describes in words what directors of the popular television show JAG and the blockbuster Hollywood films A Few Good Men and Mission Impossible attempt to achieve. The narrator of the story Jackson Hu-chin Kan is a first- generation Chinese immigrant. Hu in Chinese means “tiger” or “danger” and chin means “gold” or “precious.” Kan’s father moved the family to the United States when he was seven years old. Seven years after he was wounded in Vietnam, Kan was sent back to the Far East, “the land of his birth and his error,” to investigate the disappearance of a JAGC officer and his best friend, Jimmy Buford. The investigation led Kan to meetings with Colonel Frederick C. LeBlanc, Staff Judge Advocate, who was suspected of building a cosa nostra in South Korea, Sergeant Major Patrick Treaty McCrail whose effort to rescue American prisoners of war (POWs) from Manchuria threw him into black-marketing business, the wang mansin mudang, the spiritual leader of the Korean village of Jungsan, and Tiger Tails, Inmingun (North Korean Army) special-operations raider teams.
Tiger’s Tail juxtaposes Kan’s search for Buford with that for his past and his true identity. Wounded both physically and psychologically in Vietnam. Kan has been haunted by the picture of a Vietnamese girl he killed accidentally. The two forces that keep him from being consumed by his war guilt and from falling a victim to circumstances which make him second guess his loyalties to his country and to his heritage are his wife, Cara Milano, and his parents. Every time Kan is trapped in a faith crisis, he envisages their smile, encouragement, and support. Except for the help of Song Sae Moon, a Korean orphanage teacher, and the wang mansin mudang, Kan would not be able to emancipate himself from emotions which belie his true self. It is with the latter’s help, he is able to rediscover and reclaim his jen—benevolence, a high Confucian virtue—and to sort out his labyrinthine feelings for Asia and for his country, the United States. Contrary to what critic Lydia Lum suggests, Tiger’s Tail is not about someone who is “torn between two cultures” or about the necessity of superseding one culture with another. It is about searching for an identity that can accurately reflect the narrator’s upbringing, his loyalty, and his faith. This search is revealed and accentuated by the richness of the book’s linguistic nuance. Some people might find Lee’s use of acronyms, abbreviations, and Italicized Eastern terms bewildering and distracting. But the juxtaposition of these terms itself, similar to the ontological significance of the narrator’s name, suggests a cohesiveness which reinforces several of the book’s thematic concerns,
Indeed, what is so unique about the novel is Lee’s ability to juxtapose worlds which would otherwise seem incompatible. He endows, for instance, his narrator Jackson Hu-chin Kan with an amalgam of Western practicality, sense of humor, and toughness and Eastern wisdom, conscientiousness, and sensitivity. Instead of accentuating the differences between the East and the West, the book points to the possibility of creating a reality which can bridge the two, a reality in which characters learn how to balance different...
(The entire section is 1867 words.)
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