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banana boys

Terry Woo
The Riverbank Press

review by Michael S. Chong

Terry Woo's debut novel, Banana Boys, is about these Canadian-born hosers of Chinese descent and the minute details of their relationships with their loved ones. The cast includes Luke the liberal DJ wanderer, Dave the racially-obsessed computer-dating analyst, Mike the depressed wannabe writer, Sheldon the good-boy engineer, and Richard the prodigal faux FOB (Fresh Off the Boat). These are characters I've met in real life but, until now, never in pop media. Woo gives each a strong voice, and they grow and mature as the narrative unfolds.

I recognized shades of myself in each of the banana boys: the parental unit face-factor, the post-Head Tax bachelor society, the fight against prescribed stereotypes, and the underlying search for identity. Reading Banana Boys was like looking into a mirror and wincing. But as Luke says to Michael, "Healing is the best revenge."

The book opens with a tragedy which reunites the group, then flashbacks which reveal the growth of their relationships. Each chapter is told by one of banana boys, as they try to build lives in the Great White North.

Through the course of the novel, Woo's characters try to attempt to answer the introductory question:

"You're not Chinese and you're not white . . . what the hell are you?"

One of the major quests for the banana boys is to find their idealized banana girl. The women of Asian descent play supporting roles in the book, except for Richard's sister, Shirl, whose observations open and close the book. None of the positively-portrayed banana girls have a banana boy boyfriend or husband. But then again, if I remember correctly, neither did any of the women in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. Tan's novel is mentioned several times in Banana Boys, usually with derision. Richard tells Michael he should include Chinese mysticism in his planned novel because it made books like Tan's bestsellers.

In fact, Banana Boys could be seen as an answer to The Joy Luck Club and its progeny. The structure is similar but instead of a round of mah-jong, the banana boys, like good Canadians, sit around cherishing the amber ambrosia of Canadian lager. Another difference is that none of the banana boys have a successful relationship with the opposite sex.

The older generation of Chinese parents are also background players in the story. The fathers are either absent, as Luke's is, or weak, as Richard sees his depression-addled father. The mothers are stringent and controlling, for the most part, with guilt as a major tool.

In the end, there is hope, with some of the banana boys opening the possibility for both romance and travel. They are finding their way away from a state of learned helplessness. To be a man, with all the positive and negative connotations of the title, in an emasculating situation may be what lies beneath the peel of Terry Woo's Banana Boys.

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