While in Beijing this summer I saw an striking advertisement for a bar called “The World of Suzie Wong.’ I looked it up in my Fodor’s travel guide, and I learned that the bar was named after the book / play / ballet / movie of the same name. Soon after I returned I had the opportunity of watching the movie version (staring William Holden and Nancy Kwan). The movie was striking on two counts: first, as a contrast to China Doll (a romance set in wartime rural China, insetad of peacetime urban Hong Kong, and second, as a cipher to the works of Dean Barrett. In particular, The World of Suzie Wong helped me understand why I am a fan of Dean Barrett’s work, but did not enjoy his most recent work, Dragon Slayer.
The World of Suzie Wong, like most Dean Barrett books, is written on two distinct levels. On their face, these works are generally light-hearted, travel-based, adventerous, and focus most of the action on likable if two-dimensional characters. In their heart, they break with common perspectives and ask deep questions about race, sex, class, the law, individuality, and liberty. Just as The World of Suzie Wong is apparently the story of two libertines – who are selfish and giving in dramatically different ways – most Dean Barrett stories both contain a strong ethic of responsibility and against bias that can easily be charged with being irresponsible and biased. I won’t go into more detail here, but the best introductions to his fiction are Memoirs of a Bangkok Warrior (set during the Vietnam War) and its spiritual sequel, The Kingdom of Make-Believe.
Dragon Slayer departs from this pattern. It is a collection of short stories which are on their face more serious, but which do not problematize ideas in the same way. The book contains three novellas, “Dragon Slayer,” about a lost helicopter flight, “Bones of the Chinaman,” about the imperial slave trade, and “Golden Dragon,” about murder and revenge. The stories are more conventional, and thus it may be easier to describe the plot of the murdered family in “Golden Dragon” to friends in a book club than, say, the superficially genre fiction of Skytrain to Murder. However, I believe that works like Skytrain, Warrior, and Kingdom are not only more enjoyable to read: they carry a deeper meaning with them as well.
Often, the best books are those with the lowest entry barriers and the deepest rewards. The Hobbit is significantly better than Dune, for example, because while Hobbit reads like children’s literature and in fact distills the deeper metaethics of Lord of the Rings in one small volume, Dune creates a more complex and serious story about Arrakis that is, at its deeper level, a complex and serious story about Iraq (with the Latin suffix -us added for good measure).
If you get into Dean Barrett, you’ll enjoy his works a lot. Just save Dragon Slayer for the stage where you fill out your library. It’s not the best introduction to his cannon. And it won’t be his last.