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[217] Beijing: A Novel – Philip Gambone


“Do you know how many times in my life I’ve done just that? Go with my heart? It’s getting to be a cliché with me . . . Do you know how many times I’ve ended up feeling like a fool for going with my heart? I just don’t want to feel like a fool anymore.” [281]

In 1996, on the mouth of turning fifty, David Masiello suffers more than a mid-life crisis. Since his partner Johnny has died of AIDS two years ago, David has lived a lethargic life that is lacking in purpose. Cruising bars until the wee hours in the morning, hoping to find someone who might give an old bachelor a chance for relationship, or at least consoling his loneliness for a night, David feels like he is wondering with the lost souls in purgatory.

. . . I’m tired of being alone. Big news, huh? I’m tired of keeping my apartment clean for no one but myself. And I’m tired of not cleaning my apartment and worrying that that’ll be the day I do bring someone home. [16]

Hoping to relieve his heartache, David accepts a one-year position at a Western medical clinic in Beijing, where he would renew himself. Lonely but excited, he sets out to explore the polluted, congested imperial city whose charm quickly wears out in less than a week. Ubiquity of people and noise becomes a nuisance as China wallops him. The publicness of everything, which deprives privacy, is overwhelming. It’s the vibrant description of life in Beijing, which accurately captures the culture and psyche, that separates the book from it’s cookie cutter contemporaries.

Everything I saw, everything I smelled. Everything I heard, tasted, touched. It was all China. I couldn’t get away from it, not for a minute. . . People were everyone. It was hard not to think of the streets as infested with people. [77-78]

As David explores the bustle of street life and worms into the clandestine gay scene, after a series of comic and poignant encounters with Chinese men, he perceives that the same casual attitude and behavior are to blame for the heartbreaking gay relationships as in home.

But these guys don’t seem much interested in hooking up again . . . I wonder if they want to see anyone a second time. It’s not you, David. It’s the culture. The youth thing. [11]

What hits home is Gambone’s dissecting of the inveterate Chinese culture that reigns over the lives of men, who are bound by their Confucian responsibility. David’s courtship to Bosheng, a handsome artist from the northeastern city of Harbin, is complicated by not only Bosheng’s past relationship woes, which taught him not to wear his heart on the sleeves, but also his filial duty to obey his parents and continue the family lineage. Foreigners never understand that the pulse of the Chinese culture, the foundation on which social and moral values are built is family life.

Wherever I went in Beijing, life jostled and jerked and lilted along the rhythms of family life. Here, in fact, family life was life. [100]

As David begins to comprehend the divide between Eastern and Western values, as well as Bosheng’s fear of relationship, he realizes that the stoic resignation to the fate of homosexual, the loneliness, and the grief of unrequited love afflict gay men regardless of the race. What makes it even more difficult for these Chinese men is that they live in a closed world where freely expressing their thoughts is not allowed. Gambone’s novel explores what it really means to feel the urgency of seeking happiness in an atmosphere so suppressed that one does not necessarily have a choice to love and happiness. The novel is so close to my heart that it reminds all of us to not take our loved ones for granted.

There are days when I think I understand that better than you do. It’s just that I’d rather choose which part of the mess to take on. I mean, why can’t I just be—gay, without burying into all this business of . . . of—this business of picking up men in seedy places? [149]

Chinese guy, David, we fall in love too easy. Not experienced in love like you American guys. You go to bed one night with Chinese boy, the next day, he mistaking it for love and wanting you to be his lover and begin a marriage. . . Too much breaking heart, David. [183]

So right on. This book makes me laugh but also brings tears to my eyes. Beijing: A Novel resonates and evokes James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room in its poignancy of gay relationship.

312 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

15 Responses

  1. What a great review and a great selection of quotes. I have to say your *review* almost made me cry! It sounds like a wonderful book. Definitely going on my to-be-added list!

  2. Your review makes me want to read this book although I fear it will make me sad. I’ve never really thought about the difficulties one faces when loving someone from a different culture. The cultural divide can be difficult to cross.

  3. This sounds like such a powerful book! I’ll have to hop on over to Elliot Bay and see if they’ve got a copy.

    Great review, Matt.

  4. This was a wonderful review. I should’ve known but never really thought about how suppressive it would be to be a gay man living in China. I would love to read this book as it really speaks about the human condition too.

  5. This is a great review. I’m going to put it on hold at the library ASAP. Thanks!

  6. This sounds like a great read one I hadn’t heard of but will be adding to my TBR sharpish! If you haven’t already you must read Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman its just amazing! I reviewed it on Sat and think you’d love it!

  7. rhapsodyinbooks:
    I always thought people might shy away from this genre (gay fiction and literature). It is a book like Beijing that would change readers’ mind. It’s a work that describes the human condition to the full.

  8. Kathleen:
    Actually the ending is quite hopeful but the book makes sad because he does a great job delineating the challenge and difficulty of such a relationship—a gay one and is long-distanced.

  9. lena:
    It’s very powerful, not the usual cookie cutter gay novel.

  10. Staci:
    When you put gay relationship and China together, you smell trouble. He does a great job describing the difficulty and challenge in each a relationship.

  11. Connie:
    I highly recommend this book. You will also find a very vivid description of the life and landscapes of the Chinese capital. 🙂

  12. savidgereads:
    Until my friend walked into the cafe with this book last week, I have never heard of Philip Gambone, let alone reading his works. This is a great read!

  13. […] Beijing: A Novel, Philip Gambone (Borrowed from a friend A; then purchased from Books Inc.) […]

  14. Great book – one to be read more than once. Many, like myself, are still hoping for a sequel–

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