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Typical American

Diane Elliot-Lee

Courting Fame: Lawyer-turned-novelist Gus Lee

'China Boy' novelist Gus Lee grabs hold of America's emerging multiethnic society by the 'Tiger's Tail' in his latest book

By Jordan Elgrably

WHILE READING Gus Lee's third and latest novel, Tiger's Tail, I asked myself, not for the first time, what we mean when we say someone is "a typical American." Since we're all together in this crazy American pastiche--a cultural experiment that can best be likened to a salmagundi, owing to its colorful, flavorful ingredients--it occurred to me that Lee and the multiethnic cast of characters he has thrown together in this semiautobiographical tale are indeed typical Americans.

As Oakland-based literary provocateur Ishmael Reed noted in a 1988 essay about multiculturalism, "The United States is unique in the world: the world is here." This extraordinary experiment we used to call the melting pot, but which now is less about cultural assimilation than about celebrating our differences and similarities, is in many ways the subtext of Tiger's Tail.

As in his two previous novels, China Boy and Honor and Duty, Lee manages to capture America's fabulous diversity while at the same time describing the specificity of his own experience. In this way, his stories are exemplary of how American postmodern literature bears little resemblance to the fragmented and, in some cases, ghettoized literature of the recent past. Novels by Lee--and by his Asian American colleagues such as Amy Tan, Frank Chin, Maxine Hong Kingston and Gish Jen among many others--are less ethnic sociology than mirrors held up to our global/local society.

The protagonist of Tiger's Tail is Jackson Kan, a Chinese-American who grew up in San Francisco's predominantly black Panhandle, went to West Point, obtained a law degree and fought in Vietnam. In 1974, Kan is sent to Korea as a Judge Advocate General Corps (JAGC) lawyer to investigate Army corruption--in particular, the nefarious activities of one Colonel LeBlanc, a renegade commander with his own private agenda for fighting the Red Hordes.

Recently, while on tour for Tiger's Tail, Lee explained that LeBlanc is a composite of three U.S. Army officials whom Lee helped prosecute during the little-known Connelly investigation in the 1970s, in which more than 500 noncoms and officers ranked as high as general were relieved of their command on charges that included corruption and racketeering.

The LeBlanc that Lee has created, however, is not just an ordinary crook but a Southern-style good ol' boy, a Red-hating misogynist longing for the purity of the white race. An amalgam of Pat Buchanan, David Duke and Oliver North who will no doubt remind readers of Conrad's stark-raving Mr. Kurtz up the river in The Heart of Darkness, LeBlanc rages at Kan: "Whores and darkies multiplying faster than whites, taking our power, attacking our race."

LeBlanc's plan is to goad North Korea into all-out war so that he and his goons can succeed where the U.S. failed in Vietnam. His vision of America and its position in the world is that of the die-hard imperialist. Spiritually impoverished, LeBlanc cannot stomach the new, multicultural America. He represents the worst of what this country produces, while Kan and the two JAGCs who work with him, "Butt Kicker" Magrip and Levine, a Jewish amazon, fight the good fight.

Lee's publisher touts Tiger's Tail as a thriller, and it does have all the elements of the genre, but the novel also contemplates metaphysics, explores the multiethnic composition of the Army and attempts to convey a moral message about the foolishness of U.S. foreign policy when it ignores the paradigms of another culture, in this case Korea's.

Panhandle to Point

SPEAKING OF his first autobiographical novel, China Boy, Lee told Publisher's Weekly in 1991, "I'm really dedicated to the idea of diversity, and I think mine is a multiethnic novel, a collage of Asian, African, Italian- and Hispanic-American elements."

Discussing Tiger's Tail, Lee confesses, "I guess I'm an offshoot of any tribal storyteller who seeks to deliver a message with the story. ... I think novels represent the continuing repository of human morality. It's a tremendous journal about the struggle against consequences and circumstance, and attempts to find moral resolutions and moral victories. The other objective [in my writing] is to honor the great faiths of all persons, not because that somehow fits me politically, but because that's who I am."

Lee, willy-nilly, is the kind of American whom rednecks of LeBlanc's ilk despise. To be sure, he is the first-born son of Chinese immigrants from Shanghai, but--like Jackson Kan and Kai Ting, the young hero of both China Boy and Honor and Duty--Lee is also a result of the American multicultural crucible.

Although he believes he's "always been a different fish in the pool," Lee, who was born in 1946, grew up in San Francisco's Panhandle with blacks and Latinos, and went to West Point with the mostly white class of 1968. He next found himself militating for an Asian studies program at UC-Davis in the early '70s, a time when blacks, Chicanos and Native Americans were challenging universities to reimagine the standard Eurocentric curriculum. If anything, Lee is nothing so much as today's "typical American," to borrow the title of Gish Jen's 1991 novel in which Chinese immigrants discover a way to make the American dream their own.

Meditating on how Asians have successfully created a place for themselves in the American mainstream, while simultaneously forging an identity out of their original culture, Lee remarks that his colleague, Amy Tan, for instance, "is a writer who has transcended, I think, a literary boundary, and has entered millions of Anglo- or European-American households, not with a message about politics, but with a message about common humanity."

After his stint in Korea, Lee became a district attorney and an executive with the State Bar of California. Lee points out that the general counsel for the State Bar is now Diane Yu and that Joyce Kennard, who is of Asian-Dutch heritage, sits on the California Supreme Court.

"When I was in high school," he says, "the idea that an Asian woman could sit on the high court of any state bench would have been science-fiction. I think that America, at great psychic and personal cost, has become more diverse, painfully so for some. I just see Asian Americans and Asian American women in positions they could not have had 10 years ago."

Lee says he originally went to West Point to fulfill his father's expectations but quickly found he had his own reasons for being there. Back in the Panhandle, as related in China Boy, Lee had been at the mercy of kids on the street who were a lot tougher than he was, but somehow he was adopted by a local YMCA boxing coach and learned to fend for himself.

Of his journey from China Boy to West Point, from student activist to Army lawyer and investigator, and, finally, from a civilian lawyer to (starting at age 44) novelist, Lee says, "It's been kaleidoscopic, it really has, if not surreal, maybe even psychedelic--all that without drugs. ... It used to be we had a word called altruism, and that's been replaced by codependency, but I know that I'm here today as intact or as functioning as I am because of altruists."

Tweaking the Tiger

AS REVEALED in Tiger's Tail, Lee is a skillful analyst of military history and foreign policy. He is especially critical of the U.S. decision to divvy up Korea with the former Soviet Union, in which "we figured we were cutting a cake, but we had halved an interdependent society ... making both parts suffer and inviting poverty, terror, war and the threat of world war." Surprisingly, given his West Point background, Lee isn't a typical military officer who follows orders and believes faithfully in his government, but an independent thinker.

Suggesting that civilians may have formed misconceptions about military personnel as individuals unwilling to challenge the establishment they work for, Lee claims that "some of the most creative thinkers I've ever met, paradoxically, I met in the Army. Independent, critical analysts--it's hard to call them free thinkers, but really they were."

Intellectuals at West Point, he adds, had already determined that involvement in Vietnam would be an exercise in futility. "We got into Vietnam against all good military advice," Lee says. "If we really wanted to pursue American Realpolitik objectives in southeast Asia, we would've armed Ho Chi Minh, allowed elections to occur as they were supposed to in 1965, let the Communists take control and let them fight Red China--and it wouldn't have cost one American life."

The same foolish arrogance--that "we could just show up with American troops over there and those guerrillas would just die by the droves"--was evidenced in the Korean conflict, which ended in a hot truce. Today, according to political analyst Tom Plate, there are an estimated one million North Korean troops on the 38th parallel, the Korean DMZ. "The situation in North Korea," Plate warned in an April Los Angeles Times editorial, "is abnormal and unpredictable."

The ticking of this nuclear time bomb can be heard in Tiger's Tail, giving the events Lee describes a frightening urgency and relevance to the post-Cold War era. "To this day," Lee says, "if you go to Panmunjon [the sight of the original truce talks], there's no peace treaty that's been signed. It's been 43 years of hot, homicidal truce. There's still no bending down. Men are very stiff and proud with each other, very antagonistic." (The "tiger" of the novel's title is a metaphor for bellicose America, and the North Koreans who want to end U.S. influence in the region pull the tiger's "tail" when they engage in armed combat.)

Learning to Heal

ULTIMATELY sympathetic with the Korean desire for unification, Lee castigates the U.S. role in splitting the country as an "incredibly unethical and inappropriate thing to do, causing untold harm." That he criticizes the men involved, both in Tiger's Tail and in our interview, is no casual observation.

An important character in his novel is the mudang, or rural healer, a woman who gave both Lee and his alter ego, Jackson Kan, an education in spirituality. In rural Korean villages, "spiritual matters play a central role," Lee explains, "and I was told by people in those villages that the Korean people could accommodate hard winters, 900 invasions by the Chinese, a dozen invasions by the Japanese, foreign occupation, foreign influence and mass destruction because they seek harmony, and they believe in destiny.

"They pay attention to their dead, and they honor their pasts, and they respect the mudangs, the mediums, the shamans that speak for the dead and heal the living." Lee admits that as the product of a Western education, he was originally skeptical of the mudang he encountered during his time in Korea, but that "she opened my mind to the concept of faith."

The women in Tiger's Tail, both Levine and the Koreans whom Kan meets, seem exceptionally strong-willed survivors. Some of Lee's own philosophy, which he says he's derived from his 17-year marriage to Diane Elliott-Lee, is revealed in Levine's diatribe against Kan, when the latter tries to shield Levine from potential physical harm by keeping her in the background. "Listen to me," Levine fumes, "men who can't deal with women and feelings are crippled. And they make really lousy managers and shitty boyfriends and intolerable husbands and useless fathers and they are turning our world to shit!"

Says Lee, "I was profoundly impressed by Korean women, who are the keepers of the faith in Korea. They're the ones who are the repositories of memory, of optimism, of genuine internal perseverance. ... I know myself that I seemed frequently, if not inevitably, to have been behind the emotional learning curve of the women that I've known, and at the end of that process, as I try to crest the ramp of emotional intelligence or emotional capability, are issues of faith. To me, when reason and emotion really shake hands, it opens up the doors."

Outwardly, Tiger's Tail is a novel of action, but Lee uses poetic language and spiritual motifs to explore the internal, sometimes enigmatic qualities of men at war. Although there are echoes of Graham Greene and Conrad here, this is no satire but an honest attempt to understand what happens to the modern warrior. That Lee does not always offer answers is a sign of the novel's emotional intelligence. Song Sae, a Korean whose unrequited love for Jackson Kan marks her forever, says, "If we do not recognize mystery, we are animals."

"I really dislike the notion," Lee says now, "that because we have universities and we have smart people who are so commanding, that there can't be mystery. The first cousin to the idea of mystery, to me, is the notion of humility. I'm at my worst when I think I know everything."

To some extent, this is Kan's challenge--to overcome his indoctrinated, blunt male behavior and learn how to respect matters of the spirit, to honor the mudang and overcome his fear of the unknown. In a way, it's every man's challenge.

"I've grown more comfortable with the notion of the unknown," Lee says, speaking thoughtfully. "It places everything in context. I look at the beauty of my children, I look at the innocence of their hearts and their minds, and I know I'm looking at something greater than I've ever seen in any courtroom in this state, or any in corporation boardroom, or in a hall of the Legislature--something stronger than all of that."

The American Way

LEE'S NEED to honor his own past and the mystery of what, for lack of a better concept, you might call the metaphysical world, prompted him to write China Boy in the first place. It was a book, he says, "that had to be written in order to save me and my son from repeating the errors of the past. It reminded me of the father I was supposed to be, and described the father I could be, if there were any fairness in the world. It was a huge wake-up call as to the real priorities in my life, which had nothing to do with professional accomplishment, but everything [to do] with taking care of my family and being the best I could, relationally, with everyone I knew."

Perhaps, in his exploration of a man's responsibilities to his country, himself and his family, Lee's journey has carried him to an atypical locus of human empathy and understanding, but his fiction does honor the best of what a modern storyteller has to offer. Just as Jackson Kan confronts his mi-gai, or destiny, during his mission to thwart LeBlanc, so Lee, by leaving his law practice to become a novelist, has chosen to honor his own mission in life, which is to inform and enlighten himself and his community.

At the end of our interview, Lee has one more elucidation about the meaning of Jackson Kan's moral struggle. "We as a country," he says, "need to be far better informed, historically, than we are, because we can't rely on our government to inform us. We have the blessing here of mass education, freedom of speech, open libraries, but we have the disadvantage of a sort of MTV-Nintendo intellectual fervor, which doesn't allow any better thinking than many politicians can manage."

I suggest that to question authority, to struggle for justice and search for truth, as Lee/Kan does, is truly a typical American enterprise.

China Boy by Gus Lee; Alfred A. Knopf; 298 pages; $24 cloth.

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From the May 23-29, 1996 issue of Metro

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