Stuck in a tourist bus rumbling past the highlights of Beijing and Shanghai is no way to learn about China. Neither is a U.S. Congressman's Chinese junket of site visits and media events with mid-level party bureaucrats capping off in late-night lazy Susan smorgasbords and gan bei toasts. Casey Walker's first novel, Last Days in Shanghai, tells congressional aide Luke Slade's story of a botched five-day meet-and-greet for his boss, southeast California Congressman Leo Fillmore, arranged and funded by Fillmore's wealthy benefactor Armand Lightborn.
Although Luke wangled his job through his father's small-town fund-raising relationship with Fillmore, he has no romantic illusions about playing a role in shaping the future of the world. He knows his job is to keep his boss away from liquor long enough to stay on schedule. It can be messy work. "To prevent, as much as I could, full public knowledge of the crooked timber he was made from... Bullsh*t has its function. I grew up in farm country... and you can't knock manure if you want a harvest." After perfunctory visits to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square followed by yet another hard-drinking dinner, Fillmore goes off the rails and disappears on a bender, leaving Luke to stand in during key negotiations over a Chinese contract to build an airport in Fillmore's district. Luke inadvertently accepts a briefcase of cash to "facilitate" the deal, becomes implicated in the death of a regional Chinese mayor, and winds up in Shanghai with no sign of Fillmore or Lightborn and only the pretty translator Li-Li to help him untangle things and get his man back home in one piece with reputation intact.
A fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Walker spent time in China in 2007 and it shows. He's seen the ubiquitous construction cranes sending skyscrapers into clouds of smog where their "skysucking towers altered the whistle of Shanghai wind." He knows the shady ways that money changes hands and people's lives, the mantra of "embezzle, skim, divide the spoils." Last Days in Shanghai displays a good deal of cynicism about the "Chinese economic miracle" and the United States' naïve efforts to exploit it. But it's also a perceptive novel about the old giving way to the new and of one young man's attempts to find an abiding moral center in the heady swirl of a Washington-Beijing axis of money, power, women and corruption. Walker dances with the big global superpowers and waltzes away with a suspenseful modern story of sin, subterfuge and redemption.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.