Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream is John Derbyshire’s first novel. One of its themes is change, particularly as experienced by protagonist T. C. Chai as he exchanges his life as a Communist for that of a capitalist, and his life as a bachelor for that of a husband and father. The other theme of the novel is responsibility, which, in the Marxist milieu Chai comes from, leaves little room for the individual, and which in the democratic milieu he adopts can be easily discarded.
Chai’s life in China is one of loss and disillusion. His father is killed in the Korean War, and his mother dies when Chai is eight. Teacher Ouyang, Chai’s “window . . . into the world of knowledge” dies of pneumonia after Chai goes to upper school. When Chai is in college, he becomes friendly with an African exchange student named A-bu. Unfortunately, the advent of the Cultural Revolution sends A-bu back to Africa. In the famine of 1959-1961, when millions of Chinese died, including Chai’s uncle and his children, Chai works in the hemp-pits in Northeast China. He and his fellow workers survive the bitter winter by becoming drunk. After Chai joins the Red Guards, the moderates among them yield to the army, and Chai is shipped to the countryside to work as a peasant.
Chai’s disillusion is not so much with life, which he is eager to experience, as with Communism, which he believes sours life for the individual. There is nothing to do with one’s free time except drink heavily, which Chai dislikes. Since he has decided to leave China, he uses his free time to learn English, although his way of doing so is to memorize Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield.
As a Red Guard in 1967, Chai believes in purifying others of “Bourgeois Things.” As a result, he becomes part of a gang that humiliates and beats up its victims and trashes their possessions. When Yu, the leader of Chai’s unit, rapes the sixteen-year-old daughter of a history professor the Guards are harassing and then turns her over to his fellows, Chai realizes that the aim of the leaders of the revolution is not to achieve “social justice” but “to rape the prettiest girl in the school.” At that moment, Chai concludes there must be a “better way of governing people . . . that took some account of actual people’s lives. . . . China lost me, and it was foredoomed [sic] that I would become an American.”
To escape, Chai swims across Deep Water Bay from mainland China to Hong Kong. After working in a toy factory, he delivers a bank pouch for a messenger who has been run over. Chai impresses Mr. Chan, who supervises the bank’s messengers, and becomes a messenger himself for the bank. Soon after, Chai has his own apartment. After years of training and study, he becomes a banker, achieving through capitalism what communism kept him from—success.
Along the way, the only disappointment Chai suffers is Selina Guo. Like him, she is a refugee from the mainland. Living with her uncle’s family, she works as a doctor’s receptionist. Chai falls in love with her, and they become lovers. To Chai’s dismay, Selina is betrothed, via her aunt in San Francisco, to Yoy, who owns a profitable restaurant there. When Selina’s visa finally comes through, she moves to America. As a result, Chai learns that change is sometimes the enemy of one’s wishes.
When Chai is in his forties, however, change has generally elevated him. He moves to New York and becomes a vice president in the bank in which he works. Chai also marries Ding Li, another refugee from China who is almost twenty years his junior. They have a ten-month-old daughter named Hetty and a house in Queens, New York. Chai has become a member in good standing of the American Dream, personified by Calvin Coolidge, the thirtieth president of the United States.
If heaven is “Peach Blossom Country” for the Chinese, then America is heaven for Chai. To him, the Chinese are paralyzed by their own history, whereas Americans care little about history, which once enslaved them, focusing instead on improving their lot, which requires freedom to accomplish. Chairman Mao and Calvin Coolidge came from villages—Mao from Shaosan near Ding’s home province, and Coolidge from Plymouth Notch in Vermont. To Chai, the comparison ends there, since Mao wanted government to control people and Coolidge wanted it to leave them alone. In addition, Coolidge represents a sense of responsibility that Chai strives for but finds threatened by his reawakened desire for Selina.
It is Chai and Ding’s custom to visit upstate New York in the fall to admire the foliage. One year, they include in this outing a visit to Coolidge’s birthplace and bring Hetty with them. In the cemetery there, Chai remembers the cemetery in Hong Kong where he went once with Selina. He remembers her taste for “weepy movies . . . dreamy romance novels from Taiwan—all loss, grief and deprivation” and her love for a sixteen-hundred-year-old poem which ends with a girl killing herself “to avoid marriage with a brute.” Chai may recall this aspect of Selina’s character because it echoes that element in romance which thrives on sorrow—his own for having lost Selina. Behind this sorrow, his longing for Selina reawakens. After all, he is in a graveyard, he believes in ghosts, and an acquaintance of his employer has told him that a restaurant in Boston...
(The entire section is 2214 words.)