Poppy Z. Brite
& Christa Faust,
(Subterranean Press, 2004)

Poppy Z. Brite and Christa Faust are amazingly talented writers, and the tapestry they weave from three distinct yet interrelated stories in this short novel is impressive. This is not to say I enjoyed every minute of the reading experience, however. In the hands of lesser writers, Triads would be nothing more than a shocking tale of sexual perversions that few readers would feel comfortable wading through. I certainly felt uncomfortable the whole time I was reading it, but I can't deny the power of the story.

Given the authors, you probably anticipate the existence of homosexuality in Triads, and you would be right in doing so. That barely begins to scratch the surface, however. This book has more homosexual encounters than should even fit in less than 200 pages: you've got men loving men, men loving boys, boys loving boys, women loving women and one woman loving another woman in the guise of a man. There are cross-dressers galore, including children. You can rarely go three pages without coming up on another secret tryst between anything under the sun. If this kind of explicit subject matter bothers you the least little bit, the odds are pretty good that you will toss Triads away in disgust very early on.

Those who do read the short novel (even those who -- like me -- were quite uncomfortable the whole way through) will find themselves looking back on a tale that emerges with a beauty all its own and a capability to move the reader on several occasions. This book actually started out as a short story published in Douglas E. Winter's anthology Revelations, and that original story is easily the most gripping and poignant link in Triads' three-link chain. An additional two stories, tied to the first one, were added to produce this short novel.

The saga begins in Hong Kong in the year 1937. A boy named Ji Fung is sold to an opera house by his mother, splintering the boy from his well-to-do father. Master Lau is a cruel teacher who succeeds in training all of his boys to perform, and perhaps no lad is more mistreated than Lin Bai. Lin Bai always plays the lead female role in the operas, and Ji Fung comes to love his only friend in a special way. Lin Bai finally puts a stop to his master's abuse, and the two lads escape the opera house. They are soon taken in by a wealthy man who enjoys watching the lads "perform," and both boys start dressing in women's clothes to avoid detection by the police. Ji Fung almost miraculously finds his way to his long-lost uncle, who tells him the true horrors that came about on the night Ji Fung disappeared and sends his nephew on a special, Triad-related (criminal) mission to Shanghai. Ji Fung and his two friends make the trip, only to find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time as the Sino-Japanese War heats up -- big-time. As bad as Ji Fung's life was up until this point, much deeper tragedy sinks its claws into his soul now.

The novel then jumps ahead to 1945 Hollywood, where Ji Fung has come to seek a career in the movies. Here we meet novelist and scriptwriter Nan Blake, whose professional name and public persona is that of Blake Blackline, a man. She falls head over heels with a seemingly innocent young starlet, from whom she goes to great lengths to hide her true female identity. Ji Fung, now known as Jimmy, sees shades of Lin Bai in a burlesque singer but eventually finds nothing but the same old tragedy. All of these characters come together in a miasma of gory murder, exacerbating the tragedy of Ji Fung. Then we skip ahead to the present day to meet Jake Ryan, an actor on the brink of success who is tormented by his private homosexual feelings. The story takes something of a spiritual or otherworldly turn at this juncture, as a mysterious Chinaman seems to haunt Ryan's vision as he tries to decide between a life of happiness with a man he truly loves or a career that could be ruined by public knowledge of his homosexuality.

While the three stories differ dramatically in terms of setting (both time and place), characters and situations, they come together to tell the life story of Ji Fung. It is a tragic tale of mistreatment, confusing gender and sexuality, pain, suffering, death and -- just perhaps -- love and release in the end. It seems to me all of this could have been achieved without tossing sexual perversions on every other page, but when you step back and look at Triads in an objective way, you see a well-crafted tale that succeeds admirably in communicating the themes the authors wanted to convey.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 25 September 2004

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