By Scott Shibuya Brown
Black Lawrence Press, 2017
“When you spend so many years growing into a thing there is no place else for you in the life.” Such is the lot of 58-year-old Cecil Po, a used bookseller in the fictitious Southeast Asian country of Tandomon. It’s 1974, and Po has done just enough business at Gecko 88, his bookstall in the marketplace, for the past 19 years to get by (mostly by selling college preparatory books to school boys at the neighboring Ansleigh Secondary for Boys). His modest success in business at least eclipses his love life, which is hilariously detailed early in the book when Po recounts to the reader his flop of a debut (involving an expensive box of Fox’s butter toffees and a white suit with extra double pleats) at the (bi-bi-annual?) Leap Year day dance, a sort of reverse Sadie Hawkins event where all the Ah Nias propose to the men.
Cecil Po’s real ambition, however, pertains to neither business nor romance; he aspires to be a famous writer and has sent many a manuscript to the John Sanderson Literary Agency in Hong Kong, all of which have been unceremoniously rejected. One day Po notices an ad in the back of the Indo–Asia Book Journal: an American professor named M. Mittman is undertaking a posthumous literary study on writer and British ex-pat Lawrence McLemore and seeks information about his years in Southeast Asia. Po, surmising that the professor knows little about Southeast Asia and will be unable to verify anything about McLemore’s time there, writes the professor, presenting himself as a close friend of McLemore’s. A publication credit in this American scholarly book, Po believes, might be his only chance to catapult to fame as Tandomon’s first published author.
The Traders is a picaresque jaunt into the allure and the illusion of fame, as Po’s ability to deceive the American professor becomes inversely proportional to his disillusionment with McLemore, who is not what he seems. The novel, told in first person by Po, reads quickly at 138 pages and is surprisingly fluid despite Po’s sometimes mangled English, made-up Tandomon words, and unusual turns of phrase (my favorite is “dot dot dot and what have you”). Between Po’s correspondence with Professor Mittman and his own research at the Tandomon National Library, Brown manages to shoehorn anecdotes concerning a few other quirky characters who tangentially drive the plot forward but more importantly showcase Brown’s impressive command of storytelling in Po’s quick and colorful voice. These characters, Po’s “homosexual” friend Charlie O, his Cousin Peng, and his friend Gao, seem to live lives of relative adventure compared with Po, a fact that is not lost on him: “Sometimes I feel like the whole life is just the game of musical chairs and I am always standing when it stops.”
Therefore, when Po theorizes, based on his research, that McLemore may have been a British spy and not a questionable author of “mash-up stories with sentences that scatter all over the place like drunk butterflies and give me the hard time so I quickly suffer my pounding headache,” he is excited to dig into this part of McLemore’s life (“Whenever he traveled throughout the Asian countries, I think he must have seen slews and slews of things and plotted hundreds of intrigues to achieve his goals. Because that is what the real-time espionage man does, not the person who just writes the books to make his living.”) Of course, when Professor M. Mittman decides to fly to Tandomon to meet Po in the hopes of uncovering a previously unknown manuscript of McLemore’s (that Po has conveniently made up), Po is thrust into his own real-time espionage adventure, one more reminiscent of A Confederacy of Dunces than the ones by John le Carre and Ian Fleming, two of Po’s favorite authors.
At times, The Traders feels like a playful but pointed poke at the modern literary world (where “hacks” are famous, nonpublished authors are bitter, and literary scholarship is literally reduced to the absurd). But it is also an immensely entertaining comedy of errors, a familiar trope that is given a unique lens in Po, an honest everyman who compounds lie after lie to come within striking distance of the ever-elusive literary fame. It is perhaps Po’s struggle with his mostly good principles that makes the ending of The Traders slightly unsatisfying compared with the rest of the novel—Brown crafts a bit of a neat, happy conclusion that, although Po certainly karmically earns, feels more like the ending of one of Po’s vaunted pulp espionage novels than emotionally resonating closure for the reader. Still, The Traders is worth every minute of your time, and by the end, you’ll wish the book were twice as long, or, at least, look forward to Brown’s next offering.–Jen Michalski