thanks to Sarah Heady [read the review here], who not only had the guts to read the book in the first place but was also able to engage its more alarming contents–“the blunt physicality of child rape”–while navigating with seeming ease China Cowboy‘s myriad formal experiments: “a network of dreams, self-delusions and mini-universes reveals itself through Nabokovian footnotes, appendices, crime reports, fake nonprofits (Cowboys Against Child Abuse), press releases for suspicious art galleries….”
As a result, Heady writes one of the best reviews of a Tarpaulin Sky Press title, like, ever.
We’d also like to believe that Sarah Heady’s estimation of China Cowboy is an apt description, generally, of the work TSky Press seeks to publish–work that “has expanded and fused the poetic and narrative fields, creating a zone where elegance and grace can gambol with the just-plain-fucked-up.”
Early in her China Cowboy review, even Heady’s synopsis sears:
A ring of hellfire encompasses La La from the moment of her birth, when the devil himself (“a white dark man”) wraps a searing-hot hand around the breech fetus’ calf and delivers her into the harsh world of Kowloon, 1977. La La’s parents make their living “taking the tourists to an alley stabbing them stealing their stuff,” and the child is used as a prop to gain victims’ trust. Early on, to cover up the odd claw-shaped birthmark on La La’s leg, her mother dresses her in “cowboy boots tube socks,” and Patsy Clone is born: La La’s country star alter ego, her ticket to America, where children “have their own rooms.”
Unfortunately, one of her family’s victims is an American ex-con/soybean farmer/child abductor who sticks around Hong Kong following the assault, and one day La La never comes home from school. Maybe Ren, a.k.a. Bill, a.k.a. William O’Rennessey, is really the devil incarnate, or maybe he’s just one of the devil’s many agents on a confused, globalized earth circa 1989. He is certainly an updated (and actually American) Humbert Humbert whose version of the coveted nymphet is called a “la la” (with a lower-case L). China Cowboy’s heroine is just one of many la las in the world, an unlucky abductee who’s bribable by sugary cereal, plastic microphones and flouncy skirts. And Ren is a man who will do anything the voices tell him—assuming aliases, squirreling away la las in remote corners of the country, wrestling with his own delusions of grandeur and multiple personalities. In China Cowboy, “Hell is red carpeted stairs lined with plastic runners smell of wicked shit”—a particularly cheap and Americanized evil. Ren “goes all the way inside,” and La La never comes out—smuggled through the port of San Francisco, sequestered in a shoddy Missouri cabin, serially raped and, finally, poisoned.
But, says Heady, “if this all sounds too hideous to be enjoyable,” it’s also important to note that
Short infuses the story with kitsch, humor and addictively playful language that balance out the heartbreak. The dark subject matter is made lighter by La La’s protective pantheon of American deities: “Loretta Lynn Patsy Cline Emmylou Harris beautiful cowgirls,” Clint Eastwood, Woody Guthrie. She complains: “In my sleep I am starring in Coal Miner’s Daughter. I am as convincing as Sissy Spacek except I am Chinese and just can’t help it. I can’t.”
“The Lovely Bones this ain’t,” says Heady. Instead China Cowboy is
a satanically intricate narrative with seemingly infinite vantage points in space, time and sympathy. After all, Ren isn’t always evil and he’s ‘not never the victim,’ as Short admits in her acknowledgments…. [China Cowboy] is an account of trauma and the stories people tell themselves to survive, in the larger context of colonialism (1997 representing the British handover of Hong Kong) and cultural tensions between China and America….
Read the entirety of Sarah Heady’s review at HTML Giant.
Read more about the book, read excerpts, and order via the official webpage for Kim Gek Lin Short’s China Cowboy.