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This Is a Bust by Ed Lin
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This Is a Bust

by Ed Lin

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422426,399 (3.64)None
Circa 1976, a Chinese American policeman shares his daily life, creating a complex portrait of New York City's Chinatown.

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This is a Bust is a time portal that takes you back to New York’s Chinatown in 1976, just a few months after the historic newspaper headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” New York was facing complete bankruptcy, crime was soaring, the city was dirty, frightening, foul, beat up and run down.

There is murder mystery in the pages of This is a Bust, but the story really revolves around the struggles of Robert Chow, a Chinese American who grew up in Chinatown, fought in Vietnam, and returned to the U.S. to end up a token Chinese cop in the district where he was raised. Chow’s life is in shambles just like the city itself.

His role on the force is to attend community events and have his picture taken for the papers so the NYPD can show how progressive it is. (Look, we have a Chinese cop on the beat in Chinatown!) But he has no chance of getting on the track to become a detective and his inside knowledge of the neighborhood and its people is continually ignored. He’s taken to drinking to numb himself and his diet largely consists of hot-dog pastries, which, as Lin writes, are: “a unique Chinese American invention. They use the same dough as for the custard buns and taro buns, only they wrap it around an Oscar Meyer hot dog. The ends stick out like horns on a Viking helmet. They’re good.”

The book is full of little details about Chinatown like that description of “hot-dog pastries.” This is a Bust gives a fascinating, clear-eyed but sympathetic look at a community that is hard for outsiders to understand. The novel is a portrait of a city, a neighborhood, and a man at time of turmoil and change. And the mystery is pretty good too. I very much recommend to anyone who is curious about Chinatown or who would enjoy a well-written, well-paced story about an individual trying to come to terms with his past and future. ( )
  ElizabethChapman | Jun 19, 2010 |
I stumbled across This Is a Bust, by Ed Lin, in my local library by accident—because the cool, funky cover art (pictured above) grabbed my attention. The interior of the book also had a somewhat funky design. There are no first line paragraph indents; instead, everything is flush left with an extra return between each paragraph. This was all very appealing to me as a book designer (yes, I do judge a book by its cover). OK, enough on the design.

The novel also appealed to me as a writer. The back cover text states "This Is a Bust explores the unexotic and very real complexities of New York City's Chinatown, circa 1976, through the eyes of a Chinese American cop. This Is a Bust is at once a murder mystery, a noir homage and a devastating, uniquely nuanced portrait of a neighborhood in flux, stuck between old rivalries and youthful idealism."

This is a good description, but it was the character of Robert Chow, the cop, who intrigued me more than the solution to the murder mystery itself. In fact, the mystery really isn't the focus of this book. The characterization of Chinatown as a whole, its culture (which was unknown to me), and all the individual characters who populate Lin's novel are the real story. There is Chow's former partner Vandyne, an African-American, who is on the fast track to making detective; the Midget, who hangs out in Columbus park and beats all opponents in every board game imaginable; Paul, a young, brilliant tough; Lonnie, a college student and bakery worker who has eyes for Chow; Barbara, an old love interest of Chow's who made it out of Chinatown, only to return; and Yip, an elderly man who may or may not have killed his wife.

All of this is set against the background of a 1976 Chinatown, an era before the internet, before cell phones, and before the U.S. opened up relations with communist China (but is putting out feelers). Policeman Chow wonders at one point why he fought against communism in Vietnam. Though only 25, he feels old, having seen both the big world (Vietnam), and the small world (Chinatown), and how it can wear a man down. He's lost, and alcoholic, and knows he is just a token in the police department, and will never be given the investigations he desires to become a detective.

Chow is drawn to the murder mystery, though, because he understands the Chinatown culture, more so than his friend Vandyne, who is leading the investigation. He wants to prove to himself and his boss that he is more than just a patrolman walking a beat, more than just a token face for photo ops. He's warned off the case by his boss, but it nags at him, and clues occasionally fall into his lap whether he wants them to or not. As Chow puts the pieces of the mystery together, he also sorts out his own personal life.

This Is a Bust is anything but a bust. It's first-rate. Check it out. ( )
1 vote DonCapone | Sep 7, 2008 |
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