"Fixer Chao" by Han Ong

A con artist posing as a feng shui master infiltrates New York high society in an acclaimed playwright's hilariously bitchy first novel.

Published April 19, 2001 6:58PM (EDT)

There are times that meanness is simply petty, and then there is the kind of nastiness that seems to serve some kind of moral imperative -- an amalgam of bitchiness and ingenuity that manages to take out the right people using no weapons other than their own vanity.

"Fixer Chao" raises nastiness to this near-transcendent level. William Narciso Paulinha is a gay Filipino street hustler, enlisted by Shem C. to settle a grudge against Manhattan's upper-crust society, on whom Shem C. blames the failure of his marriage to the daughter of a famous Jewish novelist and his subsequent social ostracization.

The plan is simple: William Narciso Paulinha will become William Chao, famed feng shui guru. He will visit the elite in their homes, and he will earn their trust through their belief in the mystical powers of his Oriental skin. (Shem and William hope that Chao's customers' yellow blindness will render them unable to tell the difference between a Filipino street hustler and a Chinese guru, a premise that turns out to be correct.) Then he will, deliberately and maliciously, arrange their homes with at least one essential detail completely wrong, the exact opposite of feng shui prescriptions.

"If it's not true," Shem C. explains, "we'll still have scammed them. And it'll still be like a big fuck you in the middle of where they live ... And if this Feng Shui is true, so much the better. Suffering and pestilence. I've got the best of both worlds."

William, who has yet to discover his calling, realizes that Shem C.'s plot might just give him the identity he has been looking for. He thinks to himself: "If the whole world is looking for something to fall in love with, why couldn't it just be you?"

The plan works only too well. Although William is put into a world that he doesn't immediately understand (his "high" vocabulary comes from Agatha Christie novels; the first time he hears the name "Condé Nast" he thinks it would be an appropriate name for "a Hungarian count, say, with a blackmailable past," and, despite his Asian heritage, he doesn't recognize the name Akira Kurosawa, much to Shem C.'s horror), his guru guise ends up giving him a social and cultural education of sorts.

As Master Chao, William becomes a highly paid and esteemed member of the Manhattan social elite, which moves him away from his role as Shem C.'s puppet and into that of a player with his own interests at stake: He develops his own infatuations (with Kendo, one associate's beautiful teenage son) and grudges (with, among others, a magazine editor who says within his hearing that "Filipinos make the best help").

Despite -- or because of -- its unapologetic nastiness, "Fixer Chao" is an extremely satisfying and even moving novel. Han Ong has already become the youngest recipient of the MacArthur "genius" grant for his work as a playwright, and this novel confirms that his fierce, edgy prose translates beautifully to the written page. The result is an unrelenting aria of high bitchiness and scathing satire.

Next: The author of "The Beet Queen" delivers an enthralling tale of a Catholic priest who's secretly a woman

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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