A San Francisco antiques dealer dies under suspicious circumstances days before she is scheduled to lead a group of rich American tourists through Southeast Asia. The trip goes forward, but on Christmas morning the travelers vanish without a trace in the Burmese jungle.
Could you ask for a juicier set-up for a novel? The bare-bones synopsis of Saving Fish From Drowning has everything. Mystery. Steamy tropical backdrops. International intrigue. Culture shock. A quirky cast of characters. With this fertile material, the sly and gifted Amy Tan could have written a sensational thriller, updated Heart of Darkness, or better yet, delivered a powerful and timely novel about clueless Americans abroad in a hostile, post-9/11 world.
And so it is with extreme disappointment that I report that Tan has done none of the above. Instead, she has whipped up a frothy social comedy about ugly-American gaffes, Third World latrines, phallus-shaped plants, and the patently absurd case of an adolescent boy mistaken for a god. But if you drastically lower your expectations, you can enjoy this bagatelle as the witty and fluffy fare it’s intended to be.
Bibi Chen — ”a petite, feisty Chinese woman, opinionated, and hilarious” — narrates from beyond the grave. Her throat has been slashed — no one is sure why or how — with a jeweled haircomb as she was stringing Christmas lights through her posh antiques store. Bibi soon discovers that her spirit is trapped between life and the afterlife. She peers down at her own funeral, disparaging the unflattering makeup on her corpse, then decides to tag along as omniscient observer on the high-end tour she intended to lead through China and Burma.
The 12 travelers are wealthy San Franciscans who behave with only slightly more decorum than Aggies on spring break. Harry Bailley, a dog trainer obsessed with his virility, has brought along two condoms and plots with whom he will use them. He rules out neurotic Heidi (she wears an air sanitizer around her neck) and instead opts for Marlena, whose bosom may be smaller but, he imagines, ”would react lusciously to his touch.” Political activist Wendy Brookhyser struggles to focus on the plight of the oppressed when what she really cares about is getting her boyfriend, Wyatt, to declare his love. Wyatt, meanwhile, is equally determined to avoid such a declaration.
Tan has a grand time describing the sudsy alliances among these frivolous cosmopolites and skewering their liberal-elite foibles. The filthier a restaurant, for instance, the more they gush over its ”authenticity.” The same mentality eventually leads them into peril as they board a stranger’s truck and let him drive them deeper and deeper into the jungle. As Bibi reports, ”the unorthodox truck and the difficulty and roughness of the passage further convinced them that the surprise must indeed be worth the trouble, and extremely rare, that is, unavailable to most tourists….”
To disclose the fate of Tan’s characters would spoil the novel’s suspense. Then again, the preposterous fate Tan has concocted for them almost spoils the novel. Though she’s a top-notch observer of the upper-class American abroad, her characters are tethered to a weirdly loopy and farcical story line. The rich, sinister material and Tan’s sharply drawn tourists deserve better.