Tag Archives: dean barrett

Impressions of “Dragon Slayer” by Dean Barrett

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.

Review of "Don Quixote in China: The Search for Peach Blossom Spring," by Dean Barrett

There is a special joy in being recommended a book you are currently reading while being given a book you intended to buy. Such was my luck when Dean Barrett, whose Murder in China Red and Skytrain to Murder I previously enjoyed, mailed me Dragon Slayer and suggested that I read Don Quixote in China: The Search for Peach Blossom Spring.

A Travelogue

Don Quixote follows author Bean Barrett’s travels in southern China in search of the Chinese version of Shangi-La. While I’ve only been to two of the cities Dean traveled in (Shenzhen and Zhongshan), much of what he mentioned rang through. From western breakfasts at hotels, the bizarre Chinese-market logo of Haier, and adventures on trains, Dean has clearly been-there and done-that. The landscapes of Don Quixote are not as romantic as in Barrett’s other books (such as Bangkok Warriors or Kingdom of Make Believe), though I wonder if it’s because I’m more familiar with China than Thailand.

Unlike fiction writers, travel writers are confined in their characterization by what actual people actually disclose. Too many of the folks that Barrett meets in his journey are described only in outline. While again this is understandable, the reader wants to learn more than is ever presented.

I have never read Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and if I had I imagine I would not have found references to the original so distracting. Barnett is an excellent writer, but the humorous references to the text took away from the broader narrative and hurt the book.

Don Quixote in China is an appropriate volume for anyone seeking to complete a Dean Barrett library. However, better books by Barrett — and more enjoyable travelogues — are available.

Amazon.com both sells the book and has a list of positive reviews. The introduction to Don Quixote in China is available online.

The God of Viet Nam

The Chaplain’s Last Sermon,” by Dean Barrett, Memoirs of a Bangkok Warrior, 1983, ppg 57-60

Unclear theology. Notable poetry:


“Men, I want to talk to you today about prayer. I know many of you — as professional soldiers — may feel ill at ease when humbling yourself before God. But I have a pleasant surprise for you. Because praying to God is not unlike stepping on a land mine. Yeah, that’s right: there is nothing more explosive than faith in God. Now, I know you cannot always tell a good gook from a bad book. But God can. God knows which gook plants rice and which gook plants mines. I do not have to remind you that planting rice is Good and planting mines is Evil. And God wants you to recognize Evil when you see it; that is why He created land mines in such a way that when you step on them they blow you away.

Of course, I do not mean to imply that land mines planted in His name are Evil. (But, don’t forget, those too can blow you away.) But, remember, all personnel blown away in His Name have Life Everlasting.

You cannot see God — and you cannot see a land mine; but both are there and both are capable of responding. This is because both have power. Enormous power. But God has far more power than ordinary land mines. Land mines can blow you away when you step on them. But the power of God is unlimited. He can blow you away anytime, anyplace, under any conditions, war or peace, out on patrol or while cleaning your rifle, standing in the chow line or marching in a parade, engaged in a firefight or walking to the latrine, combatants or non-combatants, officer or enlisted, man, mama-san or bab-san, soldier or queer. Even, somewhat unfairly, perhaps, in a demilitarized zone.

Now, men, I want you to think of God as a powerful weapon. Because God is smarter than the smartest bomb, more powerful than the most destructive artillery, and don’t forget, He can see in the dark.

Think of God as a Great Being looking at us all through an infra-red starlight sniperscope. Wherever we are, the eyes of God follow. We are forever lined up in His sights. And one day this Supreme Being will peer through those sighs, squint through that scope, slowly squeeze the trigger and neutralize each and every one of us — regardless of race, color, creed, sex, age, I.Q., name, rank, and serial number.

God needs no illumination rounds or saturation bombing to rubbish His chosen targets. His rifle never jams; His ammunition is Everlasting. The day will come when each and ever one of us will be trapped in one of God’s multi-divisional search-and-destroy sweeps, or by angels deployed by God to mop up. And let me assure you that God’s angels are perfectly able to bomb and strage any pockets of resistance that hold you, however briefly, against them.

Let there be no doubt about it, the day will come when God will frag all of us. And when that day comes, when God in His wisdom springs His ambush, when God booby-traps your trail, when God chooses to evacuate you from the battle zone forever, when He discharges you from our army to reinforce His own celestial combatants, be absolutely certain that you have been adequately briefed on your new mission.

Because on that final Day of Judgement, when what we call our universe is finally and utterly defoliated for all time, God will gather thee elite troops of his most crack divisions around him, while those soldiers who surrendered to temptation, or who performed unnatural acts, will be condemned to a free-fire zone forever.

And those who feel they might escape God’s Incoming Rounds, remember, even Jesus was not issued a flak-jacket. Quite the contrary. Out of His Great love for the world, God fragged His own son. And that is something to think about.

Now, men, even after the war is over, people will still have faith in God — and they will still have children, some of whom will become soldiers themselves, and some of whom will be blown away by stepping on leftover land mines — regardless of race, color or creed, boy or girl, tall or short, military dependents or draft resisters, students participating in R.O.T.C. or deserters, applications of O.C.S. or queers. God calls everyone. But how many who have ever stepped on a land mine have actually paused to consider… consider how one path can lead back to base, and how one path can lead to Life Everlasting.

As I’ve said, men, land mines cannot be seen, neither can God; but both exist, and both are waiting — Out There. Now, you may never step on a land mine, but that does not mean God does not love you. Let us pray.

‘O Lord our God, Thou who art greater than any weapon yet conceived by man, Thou who exist in greater depth than any land mine yet planted by man, Thou who has blown away more soldiers on more battlefields, than even we are able to do, give us this day the power to tell good gooks from bad gooks, and to know which gooks serve in Your Name and which gooks should be neutralized… in Your Name. Give us the firepower to destroy Thine enemies. Give us the strength to understand Your Wisdom, to glory in Your Plan, and — when that time comes — to readily and gratefully allow our bodies to be rubbished in Your Name.

When you call us back to base, oh Lord, when we stand before you in Divine Interrogation, lead us not to report that our mission was aborted or that our air-strike against Thine enemies was canceled because of unfavorable weather conditions. Let us salute proudly and smartly and with confidence our Supreme Commander-in-Chief; and let us never stoop to inflating a body count in order to make favorable impression.

And give us this day the ability to recognize that beseeching Thy aid is — if we sincerely and humbly request it — as simple and as uncomplicated as stepping on a land mine. We ask this in Your Name and in the Name of Your Only Begotten Son. Whom You saw fit to rubbish on our behalf. Amen.'”