Friday, January 07, 2011

Short-a-Day: Jack Livings's "The Heir"

Originally published in A Public Space, No. 4. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 18.

Being both a cultural tale about the division between the Chinese and the Uyghurs and a generational one, about the split between the hard work gangster boss Omar has done to maintain his shantytown and the relatively soft life that his grandson Anwher has lived, I'm not surprised that the motivations of these characters elude me, just disappointed. Omar opens the story worrying about betrayal from his henchmen, and gets frustrated when he is forced to beat a young child in order to make an example -- to show that he is not soft and not afraid. He dreams "of open skies and the steppes. The intimacy of emptiness. Endless rivers and the shallow arc of the horizon. It had been thirty years since he'd breathed air so clear a man could smell the hint of a cooking fire an entire valley away."

But this story is about the so-called heir, a spineless child who threatens to return to his home country, but never does, for he realizes how precarious his position is as a minority, prizes the little power he has in this makeshift village, even if it is "unquestionably the worst place in the world." He's about to realize this even more readily, for after an encounter with a local barber goes poorly, he is hauled off by the Chinese in the middle of the night, beaten, and eventually thrown in prison, the pawn in a self-conscious officer's attempt to be known as something other than "Fatty Bo." The rest of the story leads up to one thing, and one thing only: a carefully staged scene in which Omar watches Fatty Bo beat Anwher, who is now a stand-in for all the Uyghurs. Omar steels himself up to remind both the Chinese and his offspring, his heirs, his generation, how to be defiant, passing on the only thing he truly owns: "This can go on indefinitely," warns Fatty Bo. "So be it," Omar replies, speaking to both Anwher and Fatty Bo. "Show us what you're made of."
Save for the gritty depictions of corruption and slum life, and of course this passion-play of an ending, Livings doesn't do much in his twenty-five pages, and the few glimpses he gives us into the minds of the Chinese -- the barber's mother, who doesn't hide her whoring, since it's been a necessity for her -- don't really have much of an effect, mainly because they're not the point, just window-dressing. Ultimately, we can do little more than shrug our shoulders in resignation upon finishing the story. That's it, and that's it.

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