When I was in high school I took a class in creative writing; at the end of the semester, I held in my hands a forty-some page computer printout of some many-times-revised writing achievement, ready for submission to some writing competition for high school students. My story, of course (coming as it did from a freshman in high school), was macabre, and, worse, it was written in a run-on style that sat somewhere between Faulkner and Sweet Valley High with all of the punctuation removed. I was proud, but, when I read my friend Blaise’s submission to that same competition his simple, clear sentences made me put aside any thought of my story receiving awards. I tried, later, to write using plainer language and clearer themes, and briefly fancied myself as having some skill; but then a new student came to my school. Jess wrote ethereal prose, each sentence stripped down to the fewest words possible, hinting only obliquely at conversation or exposition, sort of like some Zen koan from whose hidden meaning we should understand the world. I couldn’t approach Jess’s writing, and, after a few feeble attempts, I took another creative writing class and turned out a baroque and bloody term paper story that sported a sentence all of a page and a half long. It didn’t help that I was reading Joyce at the time.
Despite my personal embarassment at not being able to match his craft with the written word — and his ability to write in a large, open, clear hand — Jess and I became pretty good friends through the last two years of high school. We’d chat in the library or in the halls of school, he sat next to me in French class — on purpose, even! — and I think I even ran into him listening to punk bands play at this Unitarian church downtown a few times. Of course these bands were made up of high school students just like us, writing the same crap, searching for their voice just as much as us, and turning out the same awful quality of product, just in a different medium.
Now, I won’t lie, Jess’s stuff (at least what I read) was not the next Great American Novel. I mean, whose writing rose to the heights they dreamed of at that age? We weren’t even as good as we thought we were, or as our parents and friends told us we were. Heck, I spent untold hours on the high school newspaper and wrote many tens of thousands of words in articles on foodservice and new Lower School teachers and cross-country and the suchlike, and, looking back on all that now, there wasn’t one good lede in any of my output. But I could tell that, in the bones of what Jess was writing, there was something unique, something inimitable, something that could actually be the foundation for, well, something.
Part two of this blog entry is that, when I’m bored, I’ll Google anybody whose name I can think of. New friends, old friends, old lovers, old crushes, I’ve looked everyone up. One evening, a few months ago, I started Googling people from high school. Nothing came up for mos of my searches, but, right at the top of my search for “Jess Row” was a page at Amazon.com — a preannounced book of short stories. I clicked the link. Could this be the Jess whom I somehow followed into Amnesty International for a couple of terms? It was, and his debut already had book-jacket endorsements from authors I’d actually heard of. So I put it on my wishlist and waited for the right time to order.
Jess Row’s debut, The Train to Lo Wu, is a compliation of stories about life in Hong Kong, so I thought it would be the right book to take with me as I made my own trip into the other world of Asia. I ordered it early, with the first set of “must haves” I knew I needed even months before my trip; then it sat on my bookshelf, waiting to be packed; then it sat in my bag, waiting for the moment to be right and for me to start reading it.
Before I left for Southeast Asia, I asked a lot of people “what should I read to understand Southeast Asia?” I asked the wrong people, though — all baby boomers, all American, so all of my recommendations were books about the Vietnam/American/Second Indochina War. But I brought a couple of options, and found myself reading a book about Dien Bien Phu as I packed up to leave Bangkok for Hanoi. Never having been to Vietnam I was unsure exactly how it would look for a westerner to be reading such a book, so I decided to bring another reading option for the plane and pack my Dien Bien Phu book in my suitcase, even though I’m highly allergic to putting down a book I’m currently reading. But what other book? I had The Quiet American, the classic Vietnam novel, and a Stanislaw Lem book — every socialist country likes a good socialist science fiction author, and I had The Train to Lo Wu. I grabbed Jess’s book half out of obligation, and anyway I was tired and sure I’d sleep through my flight. Thus it was a complete surprise to me when, an hour and a half later, the pilot told me we were going to land and I hadn’t caught so much of a wink of sleep.
The Train to Lo Wu was everything I thought Jess’s writing could be — simple and light and clean without being basic or obvious. Plot was hinted at generally, with story arcs moving concentrically around their point until they suddenly orbited inwards and hit the crux of the matter head-on. Language was precise but no phrases were overdone or overused, everything felt new. I felt like I was reading what I’d hoped I could read, what I’d hoped I could produce, fifteen years ago. The book was everything I could’ve hoped for, and it even helped me to understand what a million books about the Vietnam war couldn’t — the fundamental disconnect between approaches to worldview between this world’s different cultures. In every story of The Train to Lo Wu there’s an unexpected discovery, a conjunction of civilizations that helps the characters break through, and that’s what any trip to a new part of the world must be. The Train to Lo Wu was the perfect travel book for me, but, better, it’s a wonderful collection of incredible writing. It’s a book you should buy and a book you should read. Right now.