THE THOUSAND CRIMES OF MING TSU
By Tom Lin
A good assassin is quick, patient, ruthless and invisible. Ming Tsu, the enigmatic vigilante in Tom Lin’s debut novel, “The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu,” has no choice but to be all of these things. Taken as a baby from a California orphanage by the hardened criminal Silas Root, Ming was raised to be his enforcer. As a Chinese-American in the West during the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, he is indistinguishable to white men when he’s among underpaid Chinese workers. But alone, he becomes all too visible and thus carries a sharpened rail spike. He is on a quest to take revenge on the men who took his wife from him, beat him almost to death and conscripted him to work for the Central Pacific Railroad. We meet Ming just as he is crossing off the first name on his list.
As Ming becomes a wanted man, his almost impossible task of finding and killing his targets is made easier when he reunites with an old Chinese acquaintance he calls the prophet. The prophet does not remember Ming because he cannot remember the immediate past, but he knows he was coming. This clairvoyant — who is blind, naturally — can foretell every death except for Ming’s because Ming is “a man out of bounds.” Still, one of the central questions of the book emerges with the prophet’s presence: “Will I die here?”
In this unforgiving landscape, which Lin vividly and meticulously describes in prose whose music is reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s, even a rainstorm can take on mythical proportions: “The jagged peaks to the northwest pressed into the belly of the storm and opened a long gash in the clouds and out of this wound came the rains heavy and endless. The water cut straight down in great snapping sheets unmoved by wind or geology, faster than the earth could drink it.” All of the characters are deeply acquainted with death; they are orphans, widows, bodies battered by a life of deprivation and hard living. The book is filled with gunfights, blood and dust, and gruesome murders with details that are cinematic and precise, down to the number of bullets left. Death in this “ancient and deathless” terrain is always too close, where the land is sometimes a resplendent spectacle, more often a callous god.
It can be difficult to keep a narrative moving in a desolate setting and some of Lin’s descriptive sentences can feel overladen. The story picks up when Ming encounters a traveling magic show comprising three “miracles”: Proteus, the tattooed pagan; Hunter, the deaf and mute orphan boy; and Hazel, “the fireproof woman.” Ming provides this ragtag group with protection as they travel toward Reno, but since he himself is being hunted, he brings violence with him. The influx of characters takes the book deeper into magic realism while generating more opportunities to learn concrete details about Ming’s past and his present desires, particularly as he grows closer to Hazel. But it’s the development of his relationship with the prophet — and, at times, with Hunter — that lends him a vulnerability he cannot allow himself on his own. These two connections cost Ming something; he knows how risky it is to care about a frail, blind old man and a tiny motherless boy in this merciless 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 feel thin and a bit stock. This story line may have been more convincing on the screen, where visuals could have conveyed ardor and distinctiveness, but on the page, with an often stoic character, it’s hard to invest in this aspect of his journey. Also, the supernatural abilities of the magic-show characters sometimes swoop in and remove the obstacles in Ming’s way, which lets some of the tension out of the story, and despite his accumulated blood, sweat and grit, Ming can feel too invincible.
The question of death leads to the question of who will be remembered. It is the prophet who makes the connection between memory, the body and the land. “Remembrance is the burden of the body, not of the mind,” he says, pointing to scars he can’t remember how he got. He explains a fossil to Ming, how the land too remembers and is marked by what has passed, whether by ancient rivers or creatures, even if the evidence is buried deep in the earth. The prophet is fond of conjuring America’s ancient history: “In the churning violence of its waters these boulders were ground to sand, bleached white as bone and scattered widely over the land, fragmentary relics of the Arctic lakeshores that first bore and bodied the flood.” Here Lin’s prose captures the terrifying, repetitive power of nature.
As a Chinese-American assassin roaming the West, Ming is well aware of the racist animosity toward him; while he was born in California, the white men he encounters refuse to see him as American, forgetting that they too are relative newcomers and not Indigenous inhabitants. But it is often the nonwhite people in this country who shoulder 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 return — people, oceans, violence — but remembering is a choice and the body bears the cost.