218 pages, $17.95
Review by Denton Loving
The title of Clifford Garstang’s novel in stories, What the Zhang Boys Know, is abbreviated from one of the book’s central stories, “What the Zhang Boys Know About Life on Planet Earth.” While the Zhang boys, Simon and Wesley, are influenced by events long before their lifetimes and places far away, their lives are centered on a questionable part of Chinatown in Washington, D.C. and specifically on a condominium building called The Nanking Mansion.
Despite the title’s implications, the Zhang family is not explored in these stories any more than the other residents of the condominium complex. Simon and Wesley Zhang, along with the building, serve as a framework to explore an intricately-woven series of relationships between neighbors. These are people who often appear to have very little in common with each other, at least on the surface. But all of them have suffered incredible losses. They are alternately failing and succeeding the rough navigation through life.
In one of the book’s strongest stories, “Hunger,” a neighbor named Claudia must find a new way to support herself after her partner, Timothy, ends their relationship and leaves their shared condo. Having previously given up her career in marketing, Claudia is faced with slowly selling all of her belongings and scrimping on food while she searches for a job. After several failed interviews, she is forced to ask her successful real-estate-broker sister for a series of loans. And when the sister finally cuts her off, Claudia spirals to the lowest moment of her life. Garstang writes: “She has come from flesh, from parents who cared for her, who gave her a sister who has loved her in the only way she knows how, and yet she is as alone as anyone in this world can be. She is in the dark, in a confined space, under water, trying to breathe, waiting for her moment of light.”
Simon and Wesley Zhang have lost their mother in an automobile accident. Their father, Feng-qi, is an immigrant from Shanghai, and he finds himself very much alone after his wife’s death. He needs help raising his boys, and eventually, he thinks about finding a new wife. But “Simon is convinced that his mother will return. He knows it can happen. He learned about it in Sunday school. Sometimes God takes people to heaven and then lets them come back.”
Simon is right. Sometimes, people do return from the past, such as in “A Hole in the Wall,” where a young black lawyer named Aloysius deals with the break-up of a longtime girlfriend. Garstang writes that Aloysius knows “they don’t come back. Even when they’re not dead. They walk out, they don’t say goodbye, and they’re never heard from again. They leave a void, and that void never gets filled.” However, Aloysius’s father does unexpectedly reappear, years after abandoning their family. Maybe it’s the timing or the circumstances, but for Aloysius, it turns out that some voids are so deep and so vast, they can’t be refilled.
In time, Simon Zhang comes to terms with his mother’s death, and he realizes something similar: “Maybe, just maybe, he and Wesley are going to have to find their own way, without their mother, across all the streets and rivers and deserts in the world.”
Garstang is the founder and editor of Prime Number Magazine. His first book is the short story collection, In an Uncharted Country. What The Zhang Boys Know is only Garstang’s second full-length publication, but it’s a beautiful, thought-provoking read that further assures a bright future for a talented writer.
Denton Loving lives near the historic Cumberland Gap, where Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia converge. He serves as editor of drafthorse: the literary journal of work and no work and volume 4 of the Motif Anthology Series. His fiction is forthcoming in River Styx and Flyleaf. Follow him on twitter @DentonLoving.