Category Archives: American literature

James Franco’s “In Dubious Battle,” and John Steinbeck’s

James Franco clearly has a high regard for 20th-century American literature, having directed himself in a biopic about Hart Crane and Josh Peck in one about Charles Bukowski, and adapted not only As I Lay Dying but The Sound and the Fury to the screen. Until I saw his adaptation of In Dubious Battle, I thought that, like John Huston, his literary taste exceeded his directorial grasp.

It’s been half a century since I read the 1936 strike novel In Dubious Battle, and I doubt I understood the politics when I read it for an 11th grade term paper on Steinbeck’s writing, though I retained a vague respect for the least well-known of “the Dust Bowl trilogy” novels (the better known ones are The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men).


The movie looked really good (credit Bruce Thierry Cheung, who also shot “Bukowski” and “The Sound and the Fury” for Franco and directs him in the forthcoming “Kill the Czar”), sometimes beautiful, sometimes gritty. Franco had a very strong cast including himself as Mac, the unionizing agitator, Nat Wolff (who was in Franco’s “Palo Alto”) as his protégé who goes beyond Mac in ruthlessness, Vincent D’Onofrio as the bearish leader of the local workers, Robert Duvall (who played Franco’s gay character’s father in “Wild Horses”) as the owner whose apple orchard is being struck, Sam Shephard as a hard-bitten small grower who agrees to let the strikers stay on his land, Ed Harris as a punchdrunk labor activist, Bryan Cranston as the sheriff (in one scene), and Selena Gomez as the new mother and love interest whose baby Mac and Jim deliver upon arrival at the fruitpickers’ camp.

Book and movie can be labeled “agit-prop,” but the villains (Duvall and the thugs he employs) are not fantasy bad guys but representations of the rapacious industrial agricultural elite licensing goons to campaigns and acts of terrorism against workers seeking to make a living (and not just during the Great Depression: see the would-be strikebreakers in 1972 in “Harlan County, USA”).


Steinbeck’s 1936 novel In Dubious Battle is the story of an experienced labor organizer, Mac, and Jim, a trainee who proves himself more cold-blooded in sacrificing individuals to future victory than Mac. They latch on to a strike against apple growers who cut the pay they advertised in half after fruitpickers made their way to the orchards.

I thought the location might be in Oregon, in that the California Central Valley is too hot for apples, but apparently the main model was a 1933 peach-pickers’ strike in Tulare County (south of Fresno) and a cotton-pickers’ strike. Steinbeck himself went on record that “as for the valley in In Dubious Battle—it is a composite valley as it is a composite strike.” (The movie looks pastoral, but not Californian; it was filmed in Bostick, Georgia and Yakima, Washington, the latter being real apple country.)

He also did not specify “the party,” though his initial intent was to write about a communist organizer. There is reference to early IWW (Wobbly) actions in ways that seem to me to make it another, more specifically laborer organization.

Franco’s movie stuck quite close to Steinbeck’s story though the first three quarters (though adding a female sympathizer), and deviates most in the ending (particularly in whom is killed). The movie dramatizes incidents that are told about rather than directly narrated by Steinbeck, and the philosophical discussions between Mac, Jim, and Doc Burton mostly were left in the source material. It’s not clear to me how much Steinbeck accepted treating particular working people as means rather than ends in the larger struggle against capitalist agriculture. Over the course of the novel and of the strike, Jim is hardened, Mac somewhat softens, and Doc expresses skepticism about what would happen if the party triumphed (the Soviet show trials were only beginning in 1936, when the book was published; presumably it was written before them).

The title from Milton indicates that the struggle is doomed to failure, but what seems dubious to me is that success in overthrowing one set of oppressors creates new ones, as in the Soviet Union. But the clear and present danger in the book is the encouraging by the overlords, the three families that run the valley, of vigilante violence against those seeking a living wage to provide for the families. Mac has plenty to say about the bullies and chicken hawks, notably American Legion members who were in the armed services but not in WWI combat.

(on earlier adaptations to the screen of Steinbeck fiction see here)

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Robin Sloan in San Francisco in 2008

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was the “On the Same Page” selection in San Francisco for March and April [2008]. On the last day of that reign, its author Robin Sloan appeared at the San Francisco Public Library. Having enjoyed the book and its prequel, I was predisposed to like the author, and indeed found him charming, speaking without a lectern, casually dressed, and exerting himself to find the questions in what audience members said (some asked real questions, but…).


Sloan majored in economics at Michigan State and worked for Twitter while aspiring to be a writer, but not writing much except tweets. However, the book grew out of a tweet—not one of his but one from a friend who was in England and mistook “24-hour bookdrop” for “24-hour bookstore,” and liked the idea of the latter. As did Sloan, who thought about working in one.

Though its location on Columbus Avenue in North Beach is near City Lights, he said that its inspiration was more Green Apple on Clement in the Richmond district of San Francisco, where he lives (in the Richmond, maybe even on Clement, but not in Green Apple). It stays open until 10 PM, later than most bookstores (as we call them here!).

He wrote stories that he could finish over the course of a long weekend, developing “muscles” for more extended narration.

In 2008 he offered an Amazon (Kindle) Single story for $.99 and was delighted to make about a thousand sales. The next stage (of what he likened to Russian nesting dolls) was a Kickstart posting selling advanced copies of another book for $10 ($12 signed) that drew another thousand. Meanwhile, an agent saw and liked the Amazon Single, and sold an expansion to the literary house Farrar, Straus & Giroux. It has done well critically and commercially, especially in the Bay Area where most of it (and its prequel) are set. (Asked, he said he did not foresee a sequel. I wonder if he might go a generation further back in bookstore owners. What he is writing now is also set in the past and present of San Francisco. And he thinks quiet observers, writing “history in real time” are preferable to flamboyant ones.)

He was asked if the cover design (which glows in the dark) is a code. He said not as far as he knows, and that he made attempts to try to decode it.

He also said that writers are machines for transforming old books into new books.

No one asked about influences or favorite writers or books. I asked if there really are ships buried along what was the waterfront of The City during the Gold Rush. He confirmed that crews jumped ships and rushed off to find gold and that some of the ships were turned into stores, though none, as far as he knows, into a bookstore.


©Stephen O. Murray, 2008


Sloan has a novel titled Sourdough coming out sometime in 2017.

Breaking the mould

Though I was never bewitched by Star Wars, Harry Potter, Dan Brown books, science fiction, or fantasy fiction (I’m not even sure what the distinction between the later two genres are) and don’t tweet, I was enthralled by former Twitter executive Robin Sloan’s novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. The bookstore, located amidst strip joints on Broadway in northern San Francisco is very long and narrow with shelves rising more than 30 feet.


After novice designer Clay Jannon loses his job with NewBagel during the Great Recession, he gets a job in the graveyard shift of Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore. Sales are very low, but don’t seem to be the point. In addition to the sales in the front room, there is a backroom from which some elderly “shoppers” borrow mysterious treatises (written in a hieroglyphic-like code).

I guess Ajax Penumbra is an unlikely warrior and little more conventional a wizard, but Clay and his friend from childhood who has gotten rich with an application for rendering body parts (women’s breasts in particular) and a Google Princess Leia, Clay goes to the headquarter of what seems to be a cult on Fifth Avenue in New York, and steals the cult’s secret text, to be decoded by Google’s computers.

I like Clay’s voice, ironic about his fanboy penchants. I like it well enough to have made it through a book that in many ways is outside my interests, though the contrast and tension between Old Knowledge and New Knowledge is certainly interesting and important. And the moral of the story is laudable: “There is no immortality that is not built on friendship and work done with care.”sloan2.jpg

Ajax Penumbra, 1969 is a prequel for Robin Sloan’s popular Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, available only as an e-book. Ajax Penumbra is not the protagonist of the novel (that would be Clay Jannon), though an important character. In the prequel he starts as a student then junior librarian at an obscure college who is dispatched to San Francisco to try to find a copy of Techne Tycheon, last seen more than a century ago in Gold Rush San Francisco.

In addition to being on a quest and finding his way to a long, high, and narrow bookstore on Broadway in San Francisco, Penumbra is obsessed by old books and comes to be employed at the bookstore, where he is already subordinate to Corvina. Perhaps more surprisingly, Penumbra’s roommate (Claude) is a pioneer computer builder.

Though occurring decades before the story of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, I think that the order of publication and of composition is the right order for reading. If I had read Ajax Penumbra, 1969 first and not known where his life was going, I suspect I would not have gone on to read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, which is a way of saying that Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is better than its prequel, I guess.

Though I was not in San Francisco in 1969, the historical detail seems plausible and well-researched. That BART has not yet opened is very important to the plot.

©2014, 2017, Stephen O. Murray


Ten Best San Francisco (-Set) Novels (in chronological order of first publication)

Many outstanding movies, starting with von Stroheim’s “Greed,” based on McTeague by Frank Norris, and including John Huston’s “Maltese Falcon” (from a novel by Dashiell Hammett), Alfred Hitchcock’ “Vertigo,” and Philip Kaufman’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” have been set in San Francisco. Here I’m spotlighting the best novels set in San Francisco.

Both of the first two books on my list of best San Francisco-set novels were the basis of great movies. McTeague, the 1899 novel by Frank Norris, was the basis for Erich von Stroheim’s butchered (from ten hours to two and a half) 1924 masterpiece, Greed. The title character is an unlicensed Polk Street dentist whose patient/fiancée Trina wins a lottery ($5K) which does not bring the couple happiness.


“The stuff dreams are made of,” The Maltese Falcon in the 1930 novel of that name Dashiell Hammett is a statuette. It was adapted into a good movie with Bette Davis and Ricardo Cortez in 1931, titles “Satan Met a Lady” (actually that is the title of the 1936 version of the pre-Code movie re-release of which was barred; in 1931 it was titled “The Maltese Falcon”). The 1941 John Huston adaptation with Mary Astor and Humphrey Bogart (not to mention Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Eishu Cook Jr.) is credited as being the first noir movie. It is an instance in which the movie is better than the book. It, too, could have been titled “greed,” the paramount motivation of most of the characters, though detective Sam Spade has some commitment to loyalty.


A lot of other noir movies were set in San Francisco, but as a location for fiction, there’s not much of note through the WWII and postwar times. crime/pulp novelist Charles Willeford III (best known for the 1955 Pick-Up) set Wild Wives (1956) in San Francisco.

Tales of the City was a serial (first in the Pacific Sun, then in the San Francisco Chronicle) by Armistead Maupin bound into an episode novel Tales of the City in 1978, with seven sequels, most recently, Mary Ann in Autumn (2010). The series centers on transsexual Anna Madrigal and the house o Barbary Lane where she mothers tenants, including a girl whose biological father she was, the perky gay Michael ‘Mouse’ Tolliver, the more careerist news reporter Mary Ann, and the womanizing Brian. Lord knows, there are plenty of local and topical references in the series.


Vikram Seth. Who is best known as the author of the massive A Suitable Boy (1993) had earlier written a novel in verse about San Francisco yuppies, Golden Gate (1986). Gore Vidal called it “The Great California Novel” and it is the basis for an opera that has been workshopped. (A musical “Tales of the City” recently ran at ACT in San Francisco, and three operas based on McTeague have been written.)


The rest of the books on my list reach backward in time. My favorite (and shockingly out of print) is Matthew Stadler’s Landscape: Memory (1990), which is primarily set in 1914-16 (i.e., before US entry into the European war). The narrator recalling the love of his life might be considered a gay precursor of Max Tivoli (see below). He is also named Max: Max Kosegarten. The love, before going to college and an accident separated them was Duncan Taqdir, son of a Persian sculptor and an English archeologist (an “exotic”). Max’s mother was also having an affair with Duncan’s father. Stadler evokes not only requited first love but also the post-Earthquake San Francisco, back when the Sunset District was unpopulated sand dunes. Stadler also wrote a moving story of an expat from San Francisco to Paris family, the San Francisco born only child of Michael and Sarah Stein (who discovered Picasso before Michael’s sister Gertrude…) Allan Stein (1999) that is in print and deserves to be better known (it takes place in Seattle and Paris, btw).


China Boy (1991) by Gus Lee is an autobiographical novel that begins with Kai Ting is the youngest child of parents who fled Mao, being beaten up by a Panhandle vicinity bully Big Willie Mack. Kai Ting builds up his puny body (A Chinese American Mark Salzman (Iron and Silk)). The Tiger’s Tail (1996) is not exactly a sequel. Jackson Kan, its protagonist, like Lee went to West Point. The novel s set south of the Korean DMZ in the bitterly cold winter of 1973, with flashbacks to killing a young girl in Vietnam. Bill Lee’s 1999 memoir Chinese Playground is not a novel, but deserves to be better known an account of growing up on the mean streets of San Francisco Chinatown.


Bone by Fae Myenne Ng (1993) chronicles three Chinatown daughters of a sweatshop seamstress and a merchant seaman (laundryman) from the 1960s through the 90s. The suicide of the middle one is the pivot of the novel, and the other two leave The City, the oldest one for the ‘burbs, the youngest for NY. It is less melodramatic than Tan’s novels, but I would not say it is unmelodramatic!


Amy Tan’s novels The Joy Luck Club (1989) has a large cast of characters, San Francisco daughters of China-born mothers. The numbers are reduced to a mother-daughter pair (Lu Ling and Ruth) in her best novel, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, published in 2001.Well, the “auntie” who raised Lu Ling is also a major character (who knows where the ancient bones of “Peking Man” are), and the China parts are more interesting than the San Francisco ones. It, too, has served as the basis for an opera (by Stewart Wallace with a libretto by Tan, premiered by the San Francisco Opera in 2008).


Its reverse-aging gimmick kept me from reading Andrew Sean Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli when it appeared in 2004, despite having much admired Greer’s novel The Path of Minor Planets (set on a small island in the South Pacific to which American astronomers have repaired in 1965 to watch Comet Swift). When I picked it up, I was entranced and moved, as well as intrigued by the historical detail of Max between 1871 and 1941.


I did not wait long after the publication of Greer’s next novel, The Story of a Marriage (2008) set in the Sunset District ca 1953 with frisson or racial differences and homosexuality during the McCarthy era (yes even at the western edge of the continent).


For old-time San Francisco color and a San Francisco author who wrote The Devil’s Dictionary, the series of Ambrose Bierce mysteries by Oakley Hall (born in San Diego, a graduate of Berkeley) should also be mentioned. The first and best is Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades (1998). (BTW, Amy Tan was a student of Hall’s, as was Michael Chabon [Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boy, Moonglows.)

I also want to mention four collections of stories set in San Francisco

The People of the Abyss (aka “south of the Slot”—of the Market Street streetcar line) (1903) by Oakland proletarian writer, later turned Sonoma County gentleman farmer, Jack London

The Man With the Heart in the Highlands (1939[1986]) by Fresno-native William Saroyan

City Limits (2000) by James Toland (stories set in the Mission District)

Burden of Ashes (2002) by Singapore native Justin Chin, whose frustrations at life as a gay Asian American are also central to the performance pieces colleted in Attack of the Man-Eating Lotus Blossoms (2005)

And a novel set in Colma, where San Franciscans are buried Alive in the Necropolis by Doug Dorst (2008). As “Colma: The Musical” which was not based on the novel notes, the population of Colma is 1200 who are alive and more than two million who are dead).

I am puzzled by when Going to See the Elephant by Virginia native Rodes Fishburne takes place, though it certainly moves around town on MUNI.

Though playing a significant part in romanticizing San Francisco as a city of refuge for nonconformists (not just “beats”) I also have to mention On the Road by Jack Kerouac (published in 1957, written some years earlier) , though it is primarily set on the road, not in the cities of the east or west coast.

Some other contenders for consideration (to read), novels that are set in San Francisco”

Caroline’s Daughter (1991) by Alice Adams, a native of Virginia who lived for many years in San Francisco

Maleficus (1999), a newsroom thriller by a former San Francisco Chronicle editor and writer James Toland

the post-punk lesbian Valencia (2000) by Michelle Tea (the Valencia Street corridor used to have lesbian bars and coffee shops; Tea, who was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, for many years she hosted monthly queer readings at the San Francisco Public Library)

SoMa (2007) and The Sower (2009) by Kemble Scott

Little Brother (2008) by Torontonian Cory Doctorow

The High Ground: A Novel of Terror in San Francisco (2011) by Mark Cotter

Blood Sucking Fiends (1995), A Dirty Job (2006), You Suck (2007), Bite Me (2010) by Toledo-native Christopher Moore, who has returned to San Francisco after some years on Maui,

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (2012) by Robin Sloan and its ebook-only prequel, Ajax Penumbra, 1969 (2013) are a little too fantasy fiction for me, but grounded in history, including ships sunk in San Francisco harbor after crews rushed up to Gold Country

(Latinos and blacks are underrepresented across this list, those of Asian descent other than Chinese unrepresented. ACT premiered an interesting play by Philip Kan Gotanda’s “After the War” in 2007, but novels?)




Martin Eden by Jack London

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

Humpty Dumpty in Oakland by Philip K. Dick

1967 Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga by Hunter S. Thompson

The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Letham

The Fifth Book of Peace by Maxine Hong Kingston

and (upriver, the Port of) Stockton

Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (1976) Maxine Hong Kingston

The Effects of Knut Hamsun on a Fresno Boy (2001) by Gary Soto (and his 2006 play “Novio Boy”)

An American providing help to opponents of the Kuomintang White Terror



Milo L. Thornberry, who recently died in Bend, Oregon at the age of 80, was a remarkable man, and one who wrote a remarkable memoir, Fireproof Moth: A Missionary in Taiwan’s White Terror (2011), focused on the time (1966-71) he spent in Taiwan, two decades into the White Terror by what the US touted as “free China.” Posted to Taiwan by the United Methodist church, he quickly realized that Taiwan was neither “free” nor China, though a minority ferried from its disastrous misrule and failed war against the Chinese communists ruled Taiwan in ways similar to the Boer minority in South Africa. Not at all coincidentally, the apartheid regime in South Africa continued to recognize the so-called “Republic of China” after most countries acceded to the reality that China (and Taiwan and Tibet) were ruled by the communists from Beijing.

Thornberry was instructed to avoid “politics,” (“We don’t talk about such things. We are guests in this country, and guests don’t offend their hosts by getting involved in politics”), but he was quick to realize that acquiescing to the Chinese dictatorship (the Kuomintang [KMT] of the so-called “generalissimo” Chiang Kaishek [1887-1975], who had been converted to nominal Methodist Christianity by his wife, who was raised Methodist, Soong Mei-ling [1898-2003]) was no less “political” than opposing it. He quoted Elie Wiesel for one of his chapter epigrams: “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Another guide, via Reinhold Neibhur, was Richard Briffault, who wrote in Rational Evolution: “No resistance to power is possible while the sanctioning lies, which justify the power, are accepted as valid. While the first and chief line of defense is unbroken, there can be no revolt. Before any injustice, any abuse, or oppression can be resisted, the lie upon which it is founded must be unmasked, must be clearly recognized for what it is.” (This is the epigram heading another chapter.)

Thornberry and some other Americans collated some material on the ongoing White Terror (and widespread corruption) of the KMT and distributed it to newcomers not totally gone on backing anything any regime professing anti-communism did.

A few months after arrival in Taiwan (with his wife Judith), Thornberry was introduced to the leading voice for Taiwanese independence, Dr. Peng Mingmin (born in 1923), who had been convicted of sedition for advocating democracy in “free China” in 1964 and had been imprisoned for 14 months before international pressure convinced President Chiang to place Peng under house arrest with tight surveillance. Peng’s former students, coauthors of the pamphlet advocating democracy, Hsieh Tsongmin and Wei Tingchao continued to be tortured in prison. (Thornberry would meet them later.)

Thornberry and Peng met most every week. After Peng was threatened with being disappeared/killed, the Thornberrys and some missionary friends (mostly not Methodists; it was Presbyterians who refused to stop using the majority language (Hoklo) for the Beijing language (Mandarin) mandated by the KMT government) decided Peng had to leave.


The central part of the book details how they managed to get Peng on a plane to Hong Kong (3 January 1970), from where he proceeded to Stockholm, where he was granted asylum, and later on to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he had a job offer. Both the Chinese Nationalists (the KMT) and the Chinese communists suspected that the US government had arranged the escape. Peng would not endanger those who had helped him by telling how his escape had been arranged, but stated unequivocally that no government had been involved (until Sweden gave him asylum).

In 1972, when Richard Nixon went to China, Zhou Enlai, Henry Kissinger, and Nixon discussed the mystery (to all three of them) of Peng’s departure from house arrest in Taipei. Decades later, the transcript of that discussion was released, and provided considerable amusement to Thornberry (and, presumably, to Peng). Hsieh and Wei who had been kept out of the loop were imprisoned and tortured a lot more.

The Thornberrys, with the assent and cooperation of the US State department officials in Taipei, were deported in March of 1971. For decades, they did not know why the KMT deported them then. Their role in spiriting the most prominent dissident on Taiwan out remained unknown to the KMT.

Milo Thornberry had been wrestling with moral questions about violence for some time (and some space in his memoir). He never engaged in any, though involvement in a bomb-making plot is what the KMT told the US representatives was the reason to expelling the Thornberrys.

Their passports were revoked and it was decades before they learned what had happened. This makes for a second thriller plot within the story of the Thornberrys in Taiwan, one with twists that surprise not only them, but Peng Mingmin.

Only with the pressure from three US senators (from both parties) was he allowed to leave the country three decades after being expelled from the ROC.

IT was a US Department of State official who commented in 1971 that ““there is no shortage of American graduate students, missionaries… with both ardent views on Taiwanese Independence and a willingness to conduct themselves as if they were fireproof moths,” inadvertently supplying the title to Thornberry’s memoir. The sarcastic statement was not true, but there were some daring Americans who were sympathetic to the oppressed majority population on Taiwan. Fireproof Moth recounts the very real-life adventures of one small bandwho were outraged by the collusion of their country (the USA) with KMT torture, murder, and corruption.


BTW, corruption was useful in Peng’s escape. Those charged with monitoring his movements continued to submit reports of movements he could not have made and to collect reimbursement for weeks after he had left, further confusing the not-so-“secret police” headed by Chiang’s son and successor Chiang Chingkuo. There is some mordant humor along with justifiable horror at the conduct of KMT torture.

In addition to detailing the evolution of Thornberry’s thoughts about what his moral obligations as a Methodist minister and as an Amercan were in a state where both his church and his government were colluding with torture (as elsewhere, some of the torturers received training from US institutions, as well as official US refusal to acknowledge torture and corruption by an anti-communist regime), Fireproof Moth is a first-rate thriller.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

I have also written about two recent  fictional accounts of the KMT White Terror, Green Island and The 2-28 Legacy, as well as  about American witnessed to the launching of the White Terror in 1947 here and US promotion of KMT dictatorship here.

Taiwan was a colony of Japan from the  1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki until 1945 and the Peace Treaty between the Allies and Japan, signed in San Francisco on 8 September 1951, included Japan renouncing sovereignty without assigning any particular recipient of what neither the KMT nor the CCP had considered part of China before WWII. The Q’ing Dynasty negotiators were quite happy to be rid of any responsibility (in the view of other nations) of the pirate- and cannibal-ridden island that had never entirely been governed by any Chinese dynasty (until the US Navy transported KMT military forces in 1945).


More thrills based in a Taipei night market


Incensed (2016, Taiwanese-American Ed Lin’s second novel Ghost Month was the first) centered on Taiwanese UCLA dropout Jing-Nan (has many aspects that are mysterious to the owner of a Night Market sausage and skewered-entrails stand. Jing-Nan’s proprietor persona, the tout “Johnny,” is less shy than the orphaned Taiwanese 25-year-old Jing-Nan, and uses his fluency in English to draw American tourists to his stand.

It is an especially family-focused time of year (the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival), and Jinh-Nan is called upon by his Taichung gangster uncle, Big Eye, to watch over Big Eye’s rebellious 16-year-old daughter, Mei-ling. Big Eye wants her to finish high school. Jing-Nan wants to be a singer (though both her father and her older cousin don’t think she has any talent).

There is an Indonesian she has broken up with and whom her father abhors on principle (xenophobic principles) and wants to ensure is distanced from his daughter. There is the Taipei primo capo (to borrow an Italian Mafia term) from whom Big Eye has won a lot of money gambling. There are Big Eye’s fierce and fiercely loyal bodyguards, and a similar formidable pair of employees Hing-Nan has inherited along with the market business. One of them, Dwayne, is Ami (one of the aboriginal Polynesian peoples) and the book illustrates inter-ethnic animosities (aboriginal peoples against Chinese who arrived from the 17th through the 20th century, Holo-speakers (Taiwanese), Hakka, the predatory defeated Kuomintang who fled defeat on the mainland after WWII, and the swarms of tourists from the PRC) as well as explaining (with a light touch) the multitude of gods and goddesses Taiwanese attempt to get to aid, or at least not to obstruct their endeavors. Not just temples and the night market, but other parts of Taipei geography are also revealed, with a major lynchpin of the plot occurring on the relatively new (since 2007) Maokong string of gondolas above Taipei.

Although there are two murders, the novel is not at all a whodunit. There are many surprises for Jing-Nan, who is alarmed at the responsibility for a wild 16-year-old forced on him by a ruthless gangster. There is a lot of humor, not least about celebrity. Jing-Nan is a minor celebrity for having deflected a bullet with his main cooking pot (back in Ghost Month). And the novel begins with a droll account of a contest to eat especially rank stinking tofu between a Japanese and a Taiwanese who alternate winning contests wolfing down food. They put their minor celebrity to work at a rally in the night market for a protest rally involving Jing-Nan’s activist girlfriend Nancy (politicized since Ghost Month).


I think the book is just a bit too long. There are too many punk-rock (and post-punk) references for me (especially the Joy Division obsession), but I enjoyed the voice of the young somewhat Americanized Taiwanese narrator and the atmosphere of scrambling to succeed in Taipei.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Gripping thriller/romance based in Taipei Night Market


Ghost Month (2014), the first of the (to-date two; the second is Incensed) Taipei Night Market mysteries by Ed Lin, is a somewhat chaotic mix of opinions about various facets of Tawan’s culture and history with a thriller plot. The latter involves government(s) collusion with Chinese gangs, covert technology transfer to the PRC and the murder of Julia Huang. Julia grew up with the narrator, Jing-nan. Both of their parents had stands in a Taipei night market. She was a better student than he, but he was good enough to get into UCLA (while she went to NYU).

They had agreed not to have any contact until they graduated, at which point they would wed. Because Jing-nan’s father was dying, he returned to Tapei and his mother was killed in a traffic accident on the way to pick him up from the airport. After which his father died and he inherited gambling debts from his grandfather, so had to run the night market stand. Fortunately, he also inherited a staff of two very competent cooks, the burly Ami (one of the fourteen recognized aboriginal groups on Taiwan), Dwayne, and the son of a mainlander, Frankie. Jing-nan is a benshengren (Han who went from Fujien to Taiwan before it was ceded to Japan in 1895), so the stand provides a sample of interethnic antagonism with a descendant each of the original Austronesian inhabitants, of the early “settlers” (who, like American ones pushed aside the aboriginal inhabitants), and of the Chinese who fled the loss of the civil war to the communists and took over what the Japanese had developed (jobs, housing, infrastructure).

Jing-nan has renamed the shop selling skewers of sausage and internal organs of pigs “Unknown Pleasures” in honor of his favorite album by his favorite post-punk band, Joy Division. Its lead singer, Ian Curtis, committed suicide in 1979, something like a decade before Jing-nan was born.

Jing-nan is shocked to learn that Julia (1) has been murdered and (2) was working as a scantily clad seller of betel nuts at a roadside stand on an exit to Hsinchu City (35 miles south of Taipei’s international airport in Taoyuan). He did not know that she had returned to Taiwan and finds it difficult to believe that she could have been employed as a near-prostitute (or a more than near one).

After visiting Julia’s parents (and being warned off trying to find out what had happened to her by seeming gangsters), Jing-nan contacts two of their schoolmates who had also gone to NYU, Peggy (from a very affluent mainlander family of entrepreneurs) and a doughy boy everyone called “Cookie Monster.”

At a music emporium called Bauhaus, he meets a young woman three years his junior who idolized him when they were in high school, Nancy. (Peggy also had a major crush on him, though he was very visibly focused on Julia.) Thus, most of the major characters other than the Unknown Pleasure employees went to school together

Jing-nan has also inherited the illegally constructed shack in which his grandfather and father died. It is near the major tourist attraction temple in Taipei, Longshan, one that also has heavy traffic, especially during Ghost Month (the seventh lunar month) from Taiwanese, with altars to multiple gods, the goddess Mazho, and the bodhisattva Guan Yin. Julia and Jing-nan scoffed at the profusion of Taiwanese deities and their worshippers, but he ends up going there on instructions beyond the grave from her (she visits him in dreams).


(offerings at a Taipei temple (Hsian Tian Kong)


(worsipper in Longshan Temple)

In addition to two major romances and the longings of the two other Taiwanese who went to NYU, where they had little contact with Julia, and a dogged murder investigation opposed by police and the dominant (Black Sea) gang, Jing-nan opines at length about punk and post-punk Anglophone bands (I only recall one mention of a Taiwanese singer and no mention of any Taiwanese or Japanese bands), Taiwanese religious syncretism (placating gods and deities to be on the safe side even if one is not convinced they exist), love/sex, and official corruption (both police and building inspectors and permit-issuers), and the complicated history of expropriations).

I find Jing-nan convincing, albeit very in the noir tradition of a non-professional investigator who is clueless about how gangs and government collude, and there is plenty of plot with developments I did not foresee. There is lots of specificity about Taiwan geography and traffic, weather and pollution (the latter has improved considerably since the completion of the subway system). Other than not caring about his “musical” favorites, I thought there were too many dreams in the book. And I thought the characterizations were strong, varied, and interesting.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray