Casey Walker's hilarious, much-talked-about debut novel Last Days in Shanghai will be published December 16. It is about a Congressional aide, Luke, who goes on a junket to China with his boss. Disoriented and off-balance, he accepts a briefcase full of money from a small town's mayor.
In this excerpt, Luke has become separated from his hard-drinking boss. Their trip to China has been paid for by a firm called Bund International, and as Luke tries to locate the congressmen, he's also trying to keep up appearances with Bund—and falling apart in the process.
"This restaurant has a thousand years of history," the mayor of Kaifeng said when we arrived on the fifth floor of the building housing our banquet room. I wondered how that could be true, considering I'd just stepped off the elevator. No answers were forthcoming.
Whenever I returned from one of these trips abroad, other assistants always asked what the place was like, what I thought of where I'd been. I usually said a few obvious things about the quality of the food, or related some allegedly telling cultural attitude regarding punctuality or table etiquette. But the truth is I almost never met people who weren't working for a government, or a Western-directed business, people among the small minority of a country's English speakers—and these made poor, or at least abnormal, examples. So whatever I ended up "thinking" about the country was only some combination of what the host government was hoping I would, divided by whatever skepticism I retained, and helped along minimally by a very few unscripted interactions with people who, by the very fact that they could even converse with me, demonstrated our similarity rather than our difference.
The mayor led me to a private dining room, and twenty men stood to greet me. He presided robustly over the receiving line, and I gave each man one of Leo's business cards. I shook hands with a firm jerk, the way I saw the mayor do it. I watched every face, and none reacted to my English.
After introductions, the staff directed us to our place settings and the mayor began to address the gathered room in Mandarin. His translator stood mutely alongside, and I understood only "Congressman Fillmore" and the word for "thank you." It was obvious Leo had been expected as the guest of honor.
The mayor turned to me with a gesture of lifted hands. It was my turn to speak. I rose slowly, and my hands tremored until a private joke occurred to me. I huffed a few times and slouched my shoulders, in imitation of Leo's posture, and bowed deeply like an idiot who'd mistaken China for Japan.
"We may not always agree on matters of state," I said, not in my own voice, but in that loud, ponderous one I knew just as well. "But rest assured, honorable men, that America's best interests are also your best interests. We're strategic poker players, not weepy sentimentalists. And together we can all prosper." If I was smirking, and I might have been, I trusted the translator would render the words sincerely.
"To the good people of Henan Province!" I said.
The Henan officials applauded. The premier cru Bordeaux, poured by our waitresses until it nearly topped the glasses, was raised high and I was implored to chug it to the sediment.
I took my seat, and the man to my left tried to speak to me in English. It was something about how, given my youth, I must be full of talents. As he flailed, Shoes, at my right, offered no help. He dragged his chopsticks like a pen across his empty plate where they left behind no pattern. He closed his eyes tight and held them that way, and when he opened them he did not turn to my neighbor, who was still trying to get his attention. That guest gave up speaking to me and addressed something to the full table that made everyone laugh. I tried to play along and gave them Leo's laugh, from the base of my diaphragm.
The mayor watched me intently. Through his translator, he asked me a question much less pointed than his stare.
"Your ancestry?" he said.
"I'm just your regular American mutt," I said. "Scotch-Irish by way of Texas on my father's side. Southern European on my mother's, which is why you're looking at these thick eyebrows."
"Kaifeng has a history of Jewish traders," the Mayor said. "And it is well known that the Chinese empire under the Khans once stretched all the way to Babylon."
In the time this took to translate, I realized that I'd missed an opportunity to please him. I should have traced my family back to the Arabian Peninsula and the brotherhood of the Khans. Whenever the mayor wasn't looking, Shoes would set his flitting bird's eyes on the man and hold them there.
The waitresses began to serve: duck liver in jelly, shark-fin soup in a hollowed-out orange. Many fingers of the twenty at the table turned the glass lazy Susan. I looked to Shoes for how to avoid faux pas, but he didn't move. His neighbor served dishes onto his plate while Shoes stared mildly at his hands in his lap. The man next to me piled food up for me, too. I didn't see anything I wanted until a chicken dish spun near that looked familiar as Chinese takeout. I was clumsy with chopsticks, but reached for a thick piece I could handle. When my catch landed on my plate, I saw I had grabbed the head. Beak and skull—leathern flesh cooked to the color of a mummy's skin. I pushed it to the plate's edge and tried to ignore it. Was it stranger to see the head of the animal I was eating, or stranger not to? I knocked one of my chopsticks to the floor.
The mayor saw it happen and rose to shout at me.
"Chinese custom says that the person who drops a chopstick is the one to pay for dinner," the translator explained. It may have been a joke, but if so the mayor didn't laugh. The waitress brought me a fork.
The croaking translator ferried along the mayor's address to the table about the "modernization" of Henan Province, but several minutes of closing disquisition was rendered in a single English sentence: "Henan Province has the happiest labor force in East Asia," the mayor said.
The waitresses poured baijiu. A glass of it sat in front of me, clear and smelling of kerosene.
"Gan bei!" the mayor screamed.
"It means 'dry the glass,'" Shoes whispered.
I took the baijiu down. They compared baijiu to vodka, but vodka's virtue is neutrality. Henan baijiu was a militant grain.
"It's good you don't flinch," the mayor said to me. "You see? He drinks without flinching!"
With this endorsement, five enthusiastic officials of Kaifeng's government raised their glasses to me from several seats away. They expected me to stand, toast, and light a wildfire down my throat. I did, and they did, and we were all good friends.
The teenaged waitresses watched us like judges. Finally there was a lag between talk and toasts where people began to eat. The chicken head remained, its eyes on me like it might address me with recriminations. I wanted to mush it up into a ball and toss it under the table, butmy napkin was cloth and its top corner was tucked under my plate. Dumplings arrived in wooden steamers, and I speared two with my fork and built a small fortress around the head. The chicken eyes still poked above the dumpling wall. I looked so long into them—their hundred-yard stare—that I imagined a banquet of animals, with my own head spinning on the table's center.
The mayor stood—arm extended, palm face down, fingers wagging. He pivoted toward me and toasted to the congressman. I stood, shakily, as Leo's earthly representative. A waitress in a qipao dress crawled out of the wallpaper to pour me one step closer to death. I was goaded to speak again, so I repeated something I'd heard Shoes say earlier that day.
"The sky is high," I said. "And the emperor is far away!"
The mayor grinned. His associates raised glasses. When I thought no one was looking, I spit my baijiu into my water. It was the only trick I could think of to avoid heaving later in the bathroom.
"Thank you for that, Mr. Congressman!" my neighbor exclaimed in English. I turned to see myself beheld in glassy eyes. Only then did the depth of their misapprehension become clear. A shiver ran through me that I was afraid must be visible. Shoes might have been meditating, mouth and eyes closed, inhaling deeply through his nose. I looked into my lap, trying unsuccessfully to focus my eyes.
Before I could think of how I might begin correcting these men, the mayor made two fists with his hands and started swiveling his arms in a machine gun motion, with a stuttering ch-ch-ch-pop noise. You didn't have to know a single Mandarin tone to understand the shouts of "Rambo, Rambo!" that intercut the mayor mimicking heavy gunfire.
"The mayor now describes a very famous battle," the translator said. "The Chinese fighters were outnumbered by the Japanese. But all of the Chinese fought like Rambos. The Japanese were cowards."
At "cowards"—he apparently knew the English word—the mayor stood up on his chair. His porcelain eyes tried to lock onto his nearby deputies. They stared into their hands as their boss, arms exultant, searched the room for any object as vital as his beating heart. For the first time all night, the room was silent enough to hear footsteps in the outside hallway. I excused myself from the table. Twenty men could testify that an American congressman had born witness to it all.II.
Back in Shanghai, I took the Maglev train out of Pudong Airport—bullet speed through gray flatlands, the train barely swaying despite the ground it covered. I had apprehensions about Leo's drinking, and worried that I might have trouble corralling him, but it did comfort me, at least, to have arrived in the city from which our flight home would depart tomorrow. Wherever he was, he didn't want to stay in China forever.
Shanghai was dripping, gloomy. Skyscrapers pushed into view, a cloud city rising to life out of some old illustration of the future. From the Maglev stop at Luoyang Road, I found a taxi and crossed the Huangpu River in halting traffic, under global financial towers that crept up and groped the sky. Nothing in my imagination of the world's possibilities—the hands that built it, the lives it contained—could help me account for Shanghai's over-awing presence, its high-rises multiplying from the soil into a miasma of soot and acidic rain.
I dumped myself in a chair in the lobby of the Ritz Carlton. Two Chinese men behind me ordered Johnny Walker Red, and so I did, too. I waited for my thoughts to still. Only when my hands became unsteady did I realize how hard I must have been clenching them. I glared blankly at the lobby lights. I was consumed by the disoriented belief that my circumstances had become so unreal that I wasn't accountable to anyone anymore. I wasn't even accountable to myself.
I couldn't stand to be alone any longer, and finally I called the number on a certain business card a businessman had slipped to me. I spoke to a woman. Not for the first time it occurred to me: you will live all your life in thrall to your evasions, hurtling toward desires that can never be satisfied.
She could have been someone's translator, a concierge. For tonight, she was my company, my solace. I singled her out from the scan she gave the lobby. She could walk in and out of this hotel a hundred times and the men whose eyes gnawed into her would have forgotten her by the time the next pretty girl walked by.
I flashed two fingers at her. She came and sat: petite, expectedly; black hair, above the shoulders, cut in a flip popular in America in the last decade but just reaching China now. Pencil skirt, pin-tucked blouse, very little makeup. She wore glasses, but when she took them off the lenses didn't magnify or shrink the ice cubes in my drink. She asked me which room was mine and I sat stupidly silent. She asked if I wanted another drink.
"Could we go somewhere else?" I said. Anxiety put me in perpetual motion.
"I will call for the car," she said.
We went outside to wait. An early mist had turned rain. A car pulled around and I wasn't sure if the man at the wheel was just a driver or a bodyguard, too. He was big enough to knock me senseless if he needed to, but for now he was just handling the car.
"Xintiandi," she said to the driver.
"You will like it," she said, looking me over. "All the Americans like it."
I saw what she meant when the car let us out—Xintiandi was an outdoor shopping mall, distinct from its American cousins only by its patina of history: worn cobblestones, narrow alleyways. We took an outdoor table at a beer garden, under trees strangled in coils of lights.
"How long for your China visit?" she asked. She spun her beer until foam crawled up the glass. I watched beyond her head, behind the fountain. I looked into the next cafe and up at second-story windows.
"I'm supposed to leave in the morning," I said. "But I don't know. Maybe I'll die here."
In the ambient light of the coiled trees, her face was expectant, chin turned up, eyes squeezed open.
"Why did you come?" she asked.
"Actually, I'm a little lost about that myself."
"You don't know why you come to China?"
"Not strictly speaking, no."
She watched a passing woman who looked to be shivering. She looked down to the woman's high heels, and then below the heels to the uneven cobblestones.
"Are you from Shanghai?" I asked.
"I do not know anyone from Shanghai. Not one person."
"So where then?"
"Henan Province," she said. "You will not know it."
"I've been to Kaifeng," I said.
"It is all poor," she shrugged. "You have to leave. Some time I would like to go to Paris. For now, Shanghai."
"People say Shanghai is the Paris of the East," I said.
"I don't know why anyone says that. This is not Paris. How is it like Paris?"
"It's not, really," I said. "Not at all, actually."
Nothing would slow my heartbeat, but Xintiandi clamored in a way that made our conversation feel very private. I heard a jazz band trying to render Miles Davis. If I sat at this table long enough, listening to chattering groups, I could probably learn six languages. The face of the police captain appeared in every third person who passed, and I shuddered each time, but the image always dissolved into the features of a different man.
"You want to hear a story?" I asked her.
"What is the story about?"
"That's what I'll tell you, but I'm asking first if you want to hear it."
"I can listen," she said.
She must know better than anyone the private side of public men, I thought. She might even have some counsel, or wisdom. I told her a story of improbable cities, exquisite dinners—corruption and disappearance.
"I want you to be honest," I said when I was done. "What should the assistant do?"
She let me sit quietly.
"I don't know," she sighed.
"I thought you might have some ideas," I said. I realized how stupid it was to pay this woman for her affections and then spend my time trying to discern the truth of her feelings.
"My idea is I don't think you are this person you say you are," she said.
"Why would you doubt that?"
"I talk to liars all day," she said. "Are you married?"
"No," I said.
"I don't believe that, either," she said.
"Well, it doesn't matter. Let's say I made it all up," I said. "Why does the congressman disappear? What happens to the assistant?"
"I think the official is very corrupt," she said. "His assistant is, too."
"And so what happens to them?"
"They kill themselves from shame," she said. "The official jumps from a building. The assistant drowns himself."
"That's the end?" I said.
"That's the end."
"That's a sad fucking story," I said.
"I have more thoughts."
"You don't like to hear the truth."
"Maybe not," I said.
She'd been right that I did like Xintiandi. The upmarket stores were still busy and blandly prosperous. It felt familiar—the wealthy familiarity of the cosmopolitan no-place—at a moment when any quantity of contentment seemed so out of reach that even the most bloodless form of consumer activity was desperately desirable. I left cash for our bill and we walked down an empty lane where stone walls rose around us on each side.
Eventually, as though she'd been thinking everything over, she said: "In your story, the truth is nothing happens."
"Nothing happens to who?" I said. Offering her my story had hurt more than it helped, made my confinement and poor choices feel more, not less, real.
"You see this in Shanghai," she continued, "once in a long time some person goes to jail for their lies. But it is not so common. And nobody very important. Or look at the man in my home province stealing children from the Zhengzhou train station. He took them to work in his factory. He beat the children and did not pay any money. When he is caught, he says to consider his situation. Running a factory is hard work, he says. He explains he is not so bad, that he did not murder anyone. For me, I would like people to be more honorable. They were this way in the past. In the old China, people take responsibility."
"And kill themselves?" I said.
"Sometimes," she said.
She took my hand, and I aligned my steps with this girl in the pencil skirt, without even knowing her name. Rain and mist returned, and revolved, one coming after the other. She led me through neighboring alleys of some of the oldest remaining sections of the city, a few gray stone houses with faded red roofs and bent lanes where narrow corridors cut to the width of my shoulders. She always knew which way to turn, like following the lines on her own familiar palm. I was too tired to believe I could ward off any harm coming to me. My thoughts were those of an escaped convict: if what was before me was the prospect of capture and long suffering, then tonight I would abuse my last few steps of freedom.
We returned to the Ritz Carlton. I wanted a room unknown to my hosts, or the police captain, and I paid the full rate out of my jacket stash of the mayor's money. Upstairs, I paid her—she wouldn't shut the door until I did. She asked what I wanted. I couldn't tell her what I was thinking. She paced the room running her hands on the raised fleur-de-lis wallpaper. I smelled lavender. I told her I wanted to shower, and she said she would wash off with me. She took off her shoes. She smiled when she discovered the radiant heating in the marble floor.
"Lights on or off?" she said.
"Off," I said.
Water from the rain-head shower instantly steamed the glass. As her body emerged out of the darkness around it, I felt her slight pearing, her nails bitten ragged, her cold hands. Everything was a surprise: Her shoulders were almost broad, like she was a swimmer, and her flat smile hid sharp teeth. Her wet skin was smooth as stream stones. Under the shower spray, in the dark, I thought she was right about everything she'd said—the assistant is guilty, too, and he drowns himself from shame.