Ming Tzu’s Thousand Crimes
by Tom Lino
A good killer is quick, patient, ruthless and invisible. Ming Tzu, the mystery watchdog in Tom Lin’s first novel, “The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tzu”, has no choice but to do all these things. Taken in as a child from a California orphanage by hardened criminal Silas Root, Ming was raised to be his promoter. As a Chinese-American in the West during the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, he is indistinguishable to white people when he is among low-wage Chinese workers. But alone, he becomes too visible and thus carries a pointed rail spike. He seeks revenge on the men who took his wife from her, nearly put her to death, and employs her to work for the Central Pacific Railroad. We meet Ming just as he is chopping off the first name on his list.
As Ming becomes a wanted figure, his nearly impossible task of finding and killing his targets becomes easier when he is reunited with an old Chinese acquaintance he calls the Prophet. The prophet doesn’t remember Ming because he can’t remember the immediate past, but he knows it was coming. This clairvoyant – who is blind, naturally – can predict every death except Ming because Ming is “a man out of bounds”. Nevertheless, one of the central questions of the book emerges with the prophet’s appearance: “Will I die here?”
In this unforgiving scenario, which Lynn describes clearly and carefully in prose whose music is reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy, even a thunderstorm can take on mythological proportions: “Jagged in the northwest The peaks pressed into the belly of the storm and opened a long gash. Clouds and this wound caused heavy and endless rain. The water cut straight into large, fluttering sheets shaken by wind or geology, as fast as the Earth can drink it.” All the characters are intimately familiar with death; they are orphans, widows, bodies suffering from deprivation and difficult life. The book is filled with bullets, blood and dust, and gruesome murders, with cinematic and precise details , which is up to the number of bullets left. Death is always very close in this “ancient and deathless” area, where the land is sometimes a resplendent spectacle, and more often a harsh deity.
Moving a narrative forward in a desolate environment can be difficult and some of Lynn’s descriptive sentences can feel overloaded. The story begins when Ming encounters a traveling magic show consisting of three “miracles”: Proteus, the tattooed pagan; hunter, deaf and dumb orphan boy; and Hazel, the “fireproof woman.” Ming provides protection to this ragtag group as they travel towards Reno, but since he is himself being hunted, he brings violence with him. The influx of characters drives the book deeper into magical realism, especially as he grows closer to Hazel, while creating more opportunities for him to learn concrete details about Ming’s past and his current desires. But it’s the development of her relationship with the Prophet — and, at times, with Hunter — that gives her a vulnerability that she can’t allow herself to be. These two connections cost Ming few; He knows how risky it is to take care of a weak, blind old man and a little motherless boy in this ruthless country.
The men on Ming’s hit list are largely interchangeable, and even his wife, Ada, whom he plans to retrieve, is delivered in dreamy snippets that make their love seem thin and slightly Feel stock. The story may have been more convincing on screen, where the silliness and exclusivity could have been conveyed by the visuals, but on the page, with the often stoic character, it’s hard to invest in this aspect of his journey. In addition, the magic-show characters’ supernatural abilities sometimes swoop in and overcome obstacles in Ming’s way, taking away some of the story’s tension, and despite his accumulated blood, sweat, and grit. , Ming can feel very invincible.
The question of death leads to the question of who will be remembered. It is the prophet who creates the connection between memory, body and land. “Remembrance is the weight of the body, not the mind,” he says, pointing to the scars he doesn’t remember how they found. He explains to the Ming a fossil of how the land also remembers and has passed, whether marked by ancient rivers or fauna, even if the evidence is buried deep in the earth. The prophets are fond of summarizing the ancient history of the Americas: “In the violence of the churning of its waters these boulders were frozen in the sand, white as bone and scattered widely on the ground, the fragments of the arctic lakeshore.” The remains that previously bore the flood and carried the body.” Here Lin’s prose reflects the terrifying, repetitive force of nature.
As a Chinese-American assassin roaming the West, Ming is well aware of the racist animosity towards him; When he was born in California, the white people he encountered refuse to see him as American, forgetting that they are also relative newcomers and not indigenous residents. But in this country it is often non-white people who bear the burden of remembrance. His story is a new old narrative: part revenge fantasy, part classic Bloody Tale of the Old West. In this book, things come back – people, oceans, violence – but remembering is a choice and the body bears the cost.