Being an undersized point guard at a California state college is enough of a struggle without the added trouble of getting mixed up with an international crime syndicate.
In Beijing Payback (Ecco, 320 pages, $26.99), the debut novel from Portland author, translator and model Daniel Nieh, the life of a 20-something first-generation Chinese American (and mediocre college basketball player) is thrown into chaos following the murder of his father.
After discovering that the man he knew as a mild-mannered restaurant owner was hiding dark secrets, Victor Li—along with some trusted friends, his older sister and a mysterious colleague—is sucked into the criminal underworld in California and China. As he gets pulled in deeper, Li must decide just how far he can go in seeking revenge, and what his father's past means for his future.
It's a thriller, first and foremost, with scenes set in mob-controlled nightclubs and seedy massage parlors. But it's also a story that manages to touch on issues of identity, maturity, the struggles faced by immigrant families in the United States, American foreign policy—and getting high in a college dorm room.
Obviously, the book is a bit all over the place. At times, it's difficult to tell which audience Nieh is aiming for. The tone initially appears geared toward preteens, but the descriptions of college debauchery and, later, brutal torture skew toward an older demographic. It doesn't help that the story is told in nonlinear fashion, through a series of flashbacks and flashbacks-within-flashbacks.
Impressively, though, Nieh manages mostly to hold it all together. Using Li's voice to narrate, Nieh playfully juxtaposes his juvenile outlook with the harsh realities he's now confronting. In one scene, Li describes his sister gingerly picking up a gun "with her thumb and forefinger like it's a bag of dogshit." As the book goes on, though, and Li is drawn outside of the comfortable home he's known his whole life, Li's tone gradually grows more mature as he grapples with his father's legacy and his place in American society, commenting on the expectations "that our society has leveled at Chinese Americans from Michael Chang to Jeremy Lin: he's small, he's polite, he's probably not a badass."
Beijing Payback is not perfect—the female characters, in particular, are flimsy and underdeveloped. But for a debut effort, it is remarkably self-assured. After all, it's not often you find a book with so much to say that ends up being this much fun.
SEE IT: Daniel Nieh is at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., powells.com, on Wednesday, July 24. 7:30 pm.