"The Dog," a debut collection of eight stories set in China, demonstrates Jack Livings' excellent sense of what makes a story. Livings studied in China as an undergraduate and later taught English there. In this book (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 226 pages, $25), he gives us compelling and entirely credible views of Chinese life.
The first five stories (Livings' MFA thesis?) probe various antagonisms — ethnic, professional, generational. In the title story, for example, we accompany a frugal young Beijing couple to the husband's home village, where he will confer with his cousin and business partner Zheng, an unethical loudmouth, who scorns the city and its prissy ways. The story hinges on a tail-wagging pup: Will he be the centerpiece of a country-style banquet, or will the wife's humane protests prevail?
This quintet of stories exhibits what Livings apparently sees as the defining feature of Chinese life: compromised integrity. We meet Omar, a sort of Muslim Tony Soprano, who is not above using the Chinese police to discipline his wayward grandson ("The Heir"). In "The Pocketbook," Teacher Wu finds a way to capitalize upon the misfortune of an American exchange student to jump-start his career. Livings anatomizes Chinese society and searches in vain for a heart. When a character follows a path of decency and expresses concern for others, as in Livings' story about the aftermath of an earthquake, the obstacles are immense. Bing Li, a gentle-hearted self-made industrialist, donates generously — blood and money. Poor Bing's natural impulse to help, however, is buffeted by the abuse of other donors, the demands for bribes, the emphasis on getting documentation for blood donations. Livings saddles him with a scolding wife and a mouthy, self-centered daughter.
So is "The Dog" a depiction of China from the point of view of a talented but alienated American writer? Is it a picture of a place where there is little evidence of compassion or love? Just when I was starting to feel that Livings was a one-trick pony, he concludes his book with three wonderful stories that are dramatically different from the others: an epic, set at the time of Mao's death, an office comedy and a mournful vignette involving a traffic accident in the remote western mountains.
The best — and longest — of Livings' stories is "The Crystal Sarcophagus." As the nation mourns its leader, the Party gathers together all of the country's best glassworkers to create a coffin of pure quartz that will display Mao's body in perpetuity. No matter that the official demands violate the laws of physics: The workers are "encouraged" to surmount difficulties "with an indomitable will and in a planned way!" This screenplay-ready tale is one of camaraderie and shared difficulty and, yes, treacherous political channels as well.
Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.