An astounding debut that reimagines the classic Western through the eyes of a Chinese American assassin on a quest to rescue his kidnapped wife and exact his revenge on her abductors, and “declares the arrival of an astonishing new voice” (Jonathan Lethem). Orphaned young, Ming Tsu, the son of Chinese immigrants, is raised by the notorious leader of a California crime syndicate, who trains him to be his deadly enforcer. But when Ming falls in love with Ada, the daughter of a powerful railroad magnate, and the two elope, he seizes the opportunity to escape to a different life. Soon after, in a violent raid, the tycoon’s henchmen kidnap Ada and conscript Ming into service for the Central Pacific Railroad. Battered, heartbroken, and yet defiant, Ming partners with a blind clairvoyant known only as the prophet. Together the two set out to rescue his wife and to exact revenge on the men who destroyed Ming, aided by a troupe of magic-show performers, some with supernatural powers, whom they meet on the journey. Ming blazes his way across the West, settling old scores with a single-minded devotion that culminates in an explosive and unexpected finale. Written with the violent ardor of Cormac McCarthy and the otherworldly inventiveness of Ted Chiang, The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu is at once a thriller, a romance, and a story of one man’s quest for redemption in the face of a distinctly American brutality. "In Tom Lin’s novel, the atmosphere of Cormac McCarthy’s West, or that of the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, gives way to the phantasmagorical shades of Ray Bradbury, Charles Finney’s The Circus of Dr. Lao, and Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. Yet The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu has a velocity and perspective all its own, and is a fierce new version of the Westward Dream." —Jonathan Lethem, author of Motherless Brooklyn
Release date: June 1, 2021
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Print pages: 288
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The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu
For a long time it had ceased to trouble him to kill. The town of Corinne was behind him, together with its gambling dens and saloons and bars full of angry men. Not two hours ago Ming had killed a man and already in his mind the memory of it had begun to give way to the fire of imagination. In perhaps a day’s time he would come round the northern horn of Salt Lake and the monstrous shimmer of the railroad on the horizon would draw near and become visible as iron and wood. For now only the lake lay before him.
At length the sun dropped to the surface of the lake and pressed awhile against its own reflection before slipping under. Ming made camp and kindled a fire and took off his boots, brushed what seemed thousands of crushed brineflies off his socks. The smell of rot tinged the air.
The man Ming had killed was named Judah Ambrose, a former labor recruiter for the Central Pacific who kept at his hip a five-shot revolver with bored-out cylinders designed for cartridge ammunition instead of the usual cap-and-ball. Ming had seen such a weapon before but had never weighted one in his hands until that moment when he stood over Judah’s crumpled body and hefted the dead man’s gun. It was still warm when he picked it up. The hammer had been left cocked, its trigger waiting for the pressure of a finger. Judah’s finger.
He had gotten a shot off before Ming killed him, but the round had gone wide, missing Ming by a foot and a half. Now as Ming sat by his campfire he swung out the cylinder of Judah’s revolver and counted four live rounds and one spent. The gun was worth a lot of money and he would keep it even if he could find no more rounds.
He turned the gun from side to side in the thin moonlight and watched his reflection on the blue-steel barrel skew and warp. As the fire burned, the logs blackened to charcoal and then to ash and the moon sank beneath the horizon and morning cut into his reverie. He thought he had slept and this was enough.
His mouth thick with thirst, Ming drained the last of his canteen and began moving again. Before noon he was but a mile and a half from the head of the Union Pacific. He reckoned he was fifty miles from the head of the Central Pacific, just west of the horn of the lake. Lingering in the shade of an overhang, Ming pulled from his pack a scratched spyglass and scanned the Union Pacific camp. The Irish gangs there graded an incline and laid out ties one two three, drove spikes one two three. Hammerfalls sounded out a clanking rhythm punctuated by the shouts and calls of men. A dozen horses stood tethered to their posts, their long necks bending now and again to drink water. Other horses sauntered around ferrying bosses whose eyes were shaded under wide-brimmed hats. A fire burned almost invisible in the sunlit desert. Ming set down the spyglass, spat on his thumb, cleaned front and rear lenses as best he could. He sighted the scope and found it no clearer, then pointed it out west, tracing possible routes across the barrens. He needed a horse.
He glassed the camp once more. A locomotive came down the line and stopped at the end of the rails. Men scrambled over the engine, the air above its boiler twisting in the heat. After a few minutes the locomotive set off back in the direction it had come from. Ming lowered the spyglass and tucked it back into his pack.
He would approach them in darkness. For now there was work to be done. A man must make his preparations.
By a clutch of saltgrass Ming dug into the dirt with his hands until the earth grew cold and damp under his fingernails. He peered into the hole, saw the lacquer gleam of water seeping into the bottom. He dipped a finger into the cold water and tasted it. Saline but drinkable. With broad swipes of his hands he widened the hole until he could fit his empty canteen flatwise into the pit. The water filled his canteen at a trickle and when it was near full he recorked it and returned it to his pack and he swept the excavated dirt back into the hole, then leveled the earth smooth with the blade of his hand.
A body must pass through the world traceless.
He sat back and drew a sharpened six-inch railroad spike from its sheath at his thigh and laid it in the dust. From his pack he took a whetstone and a vial of oil. He drew the tip of the iron spike down the length of the whetstone in smooth strokes, sharpening its point to a lethal apex. Then he pulled his belt free from his trousers and sitting cross-legged he stretched the belt taut between his boot and his free hand. He stropped the spike quickly against the leather and the iron developed first a dull luster and then at last a mirror sheen.
The shadow of the overhang grew long. Ming drew his own revolver, cleaned it, charged each chamber with measures of powder and bits of wadding. He seated the balls one at a time, shaving off small crescents of lead. Then he took from his pack a handful of firing caps glinting in the fading sunlight like little brass stars fallen to earth. He set the caps on each brass nipple and when he was finished he slotted the cylinder back into his revolver and holstered it.
Ming leaned back and closed his eyes and remembered the pale face of his girl now lost so far away. He thought of what he would say to her when he saw her again, and of how she would look when she came to answer his knock at her door. He pictured how her face would light up, how she would leap into his arms.
Ada, baby, he’d say, it’s all right.
And he thought of how he’d kiss her slow and sweet, and how he’d tell her he was sorry he’d taken so damn long, but see, he’d say, tugging his sleeves up, showing her all his scars and burns and half-healed cuts. See em, he’d tell her, I went through damn near all creation to come back home.
He caught himself smiling and he opened his eyes, shaking his head. The chill of the desert night was sharp and insistent on his face. The moon was high and bright enough overhead that he pulled his spyglass from his pack and glassed the camp again. It was now empty. No doubt the men had gone to their tents to play cards and drink. From under the canvas tent walls lamplight spilled out in sheets over the dark sands. The low sound of men and games carrying on into the night, the clattering of bone dice, the clink of glasses on tables. It was true what they said. The Union Pacific hired anyone as long as they weren’t Chinese. Veterans and gamblers and thieves laid these rails.
At length the lamps were snuffed out and one by one the tents went blue-dark. When Ming was certain the men had all gone to sleep he put away his spyglass and set off toward the camp, tireless and silent, arriving a half hour later. A waxing gibbous hovered low above the horizon. The gang horses stood mute and still where they were tied, saddles leaning up against the hitching posts. Ming stole up to one, untied the animal and saddled it. The stars wheeled above him and glancing up he found west and spurred hard. The rails beside him flowed as a pair of smooth lines and then fragmented into a blur of half-driven ties, loose spikes, gleaming lengths of iron. And then the rails were gone and there was only the desert whipping past and he rode westward out onto the salt flats, white and ancient and deathless.
When morning came Ming halted his horse and dismounted and with a sharp slap to its hindquarters he set the animal off. There was nowhere to water a horse out on these flats. It would find its way home. Ming headed west, ready to walk the rest of the way, the Salt Lake at his back, a false lake shimmering before him, smooth and perfect as all illusions are, a quicksilver mirage. With each step the mirage ebbed and as the glimmering tide receded it left behind salt flats that were soft and gumlike underfoot. The salt clung to the soles of his boots, weighed them down, and every quarter mile or so he stopped to knock off the white salt paste that had accumulated.
The sun lurked gray and obscure in a hazy sky. He thought he heard the trills of tanagers and flycatchers but none flitted past. Nothing breathed on these flats. To the northwest there was the melody of hammers ringing on iron: the crews working at the head of the Central Pacific. The peals of their blows skimmed the surface of the mirage, unattenuated by distance, as if the men were but yards away. He had blacked his cheeks with soot but still the glare of the nacreous plains scalded his eyes. James Ellis, his next target, would be there. And the prophet as well.
His old comrades in labor would be there too, though he could not now remember their names, if he had ever known them.
On these shifting flats man’s capacity for recognition functions only at scale: the look of a mountain range at distance, the hills and valleys swelling and receding, the painted sky. But the landscape drawn close to the body becomes vulgar and inane, hard and flat and full of consequence. Among the sun-scrawled shadows of sagebrush and saltgrass one finds all things eroding, even one’s capacity for marking time. These geologies are older than breath.
Ming hadn’t slept in nearly a day. His eyes felt rough and inflamed but he was not tired. It was a sensation he knew well. When he had first arrived in the Sierra Nevadas nearly two years ago he was struck snow-blind for nearly a week, his eyes scoured clean by sunlight. Here on these salt barrens a new snow blindness was forming. No shade for a hundred miles. He stopped and drank a little from his canteen. It was nearly empty. He squinted into the west for a moment and now as he began to walk once more he closed his eyes. On the insides of his eyelids he saw a ghostly photonegative, black horizon pressed close to a gray-white sky.
Eyes shut he walked and went wandering in memory. He felt Judah Ambrose’s gun jostling in his pack, a new and unfamiliar weight. It had taken him time to track him down, weeks and then months moving through the shadowed husks of towns, asking questions in low voices to the rough men who passed dusty through these western drynesses. Ambrose had gotten a head start. Word of Ming’s escape had preceded him far into the east and Ambrose was long gone from Reno by the time Ming had come down the mountains.
But a bastard like Ambrose left traces, as a serpent casts off his clouded skin. From a war veteran in Wadsworth Ming learned that Ambrose had taken a new name and left his post with the Central Pacific to go east, though where he didn’t know. And from a railman in Lovelock who was so drunk he could scarcely stand Ming heard that Ambrose—now hiding behind the name of Theodore Morgan—had contracted four dozen war veterans in Corinne for the Union Pacific. By then it had been long enough that Ambrose had let down his guard. He had taken his commission gladly, rolled into town flush with new wealth, spent it on whores and bottles of whiskey until his funds ran out. And then he switched to cheaper whores and rotgut instead of whiskey and opened tabs at every bar in town, drank them dry until he became the most abhorred indigent in Corinne. Ming found him in the last bar that would suffer his patronage, his head slumped in his hands at a table with a half-drained bottle of whiskey and his gun beside.
“Ambrose,” Ming called, and when the man raised his head, his face blanched.
His hand flew to his gun and he squeezed off a shot, but he was drunk and sloppy and his shot went wide.
Ming answered with three shots in Ambrose’s chest, planted a boot on his throat, and asked him where they were: Ellis, Dixon, Kelly. There was blood running out of him onto the floor and his expression was one of terror blunted by drink, almost childlike in its purity of fear. It was hard to believe that this small and wretched creature dying beneath Ming’s boot was the same man who had been responsible for so much of his suffering.
Ambrose told him that Ellis was still working the head of the Central Pacific. And Kelly had been made a judge in Reno, last he’d heard. But he didn’t know anything of Dixon, hadn’t even heard his name in a long time. It was the truth, he said. He swore it. Ming had expected Ambrose to curse at him, or fight harder, or muster some sneer of defiance. But in the end he was only afraid.
“Thank ye,” Ming said, and reaching down he opened Ambrose’s throat to the world with the point of his sharpened rail spike.
No one spoke a word to Ming as he left town.
He opened his eyes for a moment now and instantly the lucent landscape seared itself into his vision. He could not tell how far he had come since he loosed the horse. His eyes burned and he knew he needed to rest for a day if he was to avoid total blindness. He walked eyes shut for hours more, his mind in a state of deliberate emptiness, an excruciating not-thinking. But there was no darkness to be had even behind closed eyes, only a milky field of light. When he opened his eyes again hours later it was midafternoon and in spite of himself he could not help but stare directly at the vast disc of the sun slipping earthward. The day had grown old and dim. In the distance Ming could make out a stuttering of rock and beneath it the mouths of caves. He would make camp there for the night.
Ming reached the caves as the day was feathering into evening and within a lengthening shadow he made a fireless camp. The sun slunk down to the horizon red like a raw wound and hung for a moment above the mirage before vanishing beneath its false waves. His eyes felt gritted with sand and salt and light but no longer did it hurt to see. He would rest for a day. The shadow of the bluff careened ever darker toward the east, across the salt flats he had crossed. Over these barely settled shadows rose the moon, full but for a sliver cut from its flank, like a ball pressed into a revolver’s chamber. In the cool blue light Ming studied the map he had traced into his notebook, gauging distances by the width of a finger, planning stops, scores to settle. When this was done he flipped through to the back and found his list of names. With a stub of a pencil he scratched out the name Judah Ambrose. On the list three remaining out here in these American barrens: James Ellis, Charles Dixon, Jeremiah Kelly. Then over the Sierras and down into California. Two final names, the Porter brothers: Gideon, to whom his girl had first been promised, and his brother, Abel. And at last his love waiting for him.
Ming drank off the last of his canteen, the saline water stinging his cracked lips. There was water deeper on, he could smell it. He walked into the cave until the air grew chill and damp and by what fractional sunlight managed to follow him he found a small pool of water, fiercely cold and tasting of chalk. He filled his canteen, drained it, filled it again. He returned near the mouth of the cave and spread out his bedroll and lay down. All through the night, sliding in and out of sleep, he dreamed a little of men who wanted him dead, of the labor of rail laying, of his Ada so distant and so familiar. In the gray morning the stars were rinsed from the sky and the salt flats caught the slanted morning light and twisted it into their own sparkling starfield. And when the day outside grew too bright to bear Ming retreated farther into the cave and in the half-darkness there he slept dreamlessly through the day.
Only when night had fallen once more did he open his eyes. To his relief his snow blindness had faded. He made his way to the mouth of the cave. The night stretched out before him chill and waiting. He glanced at the names in his notebook again. Perhaps those fools in Corinne had never heard the name Judah Ambrose in their lives and really thought it was Theodore Morgan who’d been killed in that tavern. The other five names kept tumbling through Ming’s mind. Ellis, Dixon, Kelly, Abel and Gideon Porter. Perhaps he could settle his scores and no one would be the wiser.
Wishful thinking. Someone who knew Ambrose’s true identity had probably already sent a telegram to Ellis, who would alert the others that Ambrose was dead and that Ming had killed him.
Gathering up his things Ming found the polestar and set off west again. The beat of distant hammers had fallen silent. All the men in their tents sleeping. James Ellis, and the prophet too. Ming smiled a little to himself. One to kill and the other to guide him home.
Against the star-washed sky the jagged silhouettes of distant ranges came into view. The ground was beginning to firm up beneath his feet and his footprints became hard-edged and clear. As morning broke he reached the foothills of the Silver Islands, at the western edge of the alkali flats. The din of hammers started up again with the new sun. He was much closer now. Before the day grew lurid and scorching, Ming crossed a narrow pass in the mountains and began to descend their western flank. He stopped beneath a box elder tree on the far slopes and sitting there in the dust he took out his spyglass and glassed the distance. Through the rising pall of a new day he discerned the ghostly figures of men and locomotives on the horizon. The head of the Central Pacific was only a few miles away now. Farther down the slope he found a small cave that might hide the smoke of a fire and there he made camp.
In the crystalline cold of that night Ming sat with his back against the cave wall and stared through his fire. Unbidden a memory descended upon him. He was there in the opium den, swallowed up in its layers of darkness, a pipe warm and heavy in his hands, a smear of opium still unburned in the bowl of the ceramic pipe. He was sober and lucid and hours earlier had just killed a man and now in the opium den he lay perfectly still and silent, counting with his fingertips the petals and leaves in the filigree of the pipe. He knew it would be the usual several days before he could leave the opium den and rejoin the world upstairs, several days before the lawmen tired of searching and finding nothing.
In the opium dens among these blissful Chinese he was invisible. He remembered the thick opium haze swirling in the air above him, curls of blue smoke braiding and unbraiding, and he remembered turning and seeing Ada for the first time, her face flushed and bright, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, drawing gazes and questions, attention. With her in the opium den he was no longer safe. He remembered telling her to leave and how she had apologized, sheepish, saying she hadn’t really wanted to try opium after all, that she had come to the opium den only because she wanted to try something new, anything, because the rest of her life had already been decided for her. And he remembered looking at her and feeling his breath catch in his throat, and the sly smile that crept across her face as she said she reckoned he could be her something new, and he said, Is that so, and she said, What say you leave here with me, mister? Two fools falling in love.
Ming tried to picture Ada’s face and found he couldn’t. Her features rippled in his mind as though afloat on uncertain water. The shadows of her cheekbones when she smiled, the green of her eyes. Some afternoons the light came down thick like honey, draping itself over the pale grass on the California hills. Her hand in his they would walk, in small private circuits, in endless comfortable silence. Nothing left to do some days but sit by the little warped window of their home and look out at the breathing land. He recalled the lift of her lips, the way her voice curved in a still and moonless night. Her hazy eyes in the looking glass, the creases of her nightgown inscribed on her skin. There was a nameless ache in the pit of his stomach. With each recollected detail he sensed some other detail evaporating. Her memory was disintegrating at his touch like silverdust from butterfly wings.
A mistake. He should not have remembered. It was dangerous to go lurking in memory. The new erases the old where they meet. Ming wandered through his mind for some other memory but could find nothing more, only the protean shape of her face, so familiar to him so long ago. Their pulses racing after their grand escape together, husband and wife at last, her breathing quick and shallow through that wide and mischievous grin. The weight of her body pressed against his, the wind sweeping through their room, grasshoppers whispering just outside the window—
More memories now flashing through his mind, unbidden and unwanted, a sudden torrent of images and sensations. Rough hands around his ankles dragging him out of bed onto the floor, voices he only half recognized belonging to men he now would never forget. His arms around his head, trying to block the never-ending blows that rattled his skull. And the shadow of her slight form, barefoot in the moonlight, running down the hallway, swallowed up by the dim figures streaming up the stairs. Fists and boots landing on him from every direction and still his mind spinning out. Where had she gone? Was she safe? And below all the mayhem the unshakable kernel of his mercenary training, his rational mind guiding his hands underneath the bed even as they beat him, his fingers searching brokenly for the gun hidden there, all in vain, he already knew, for he was too late, and there were too many of them.
And now the memories slowed and became solid, sharp. Hands propping him limp against the wall, every bone in his body aching. There was the cold pressure of the barrel of a gun pressing against his temple and her cries carrying down the hallway begging for them not to kill him. At length, the voice of her father acquiescing to her pleas, calling for his men to stand down. And then the pressure of the gun against his head lifting, a hammer decocked. And now he remembered that cruel face that came to hover before his blood-blurred gaze, an expression of disgust, a barked command, Dixon, come and collar this mongrel dog of Silas’s.
A wave of heat washed over Ming and his eyes flew open. He was breathing heavily and his hands were clenched in fists. The night air was cold and clean. His fire had gone out. Beyond the portal of the cave entrance the stars crept in their arcs across the sky. It was a thin, blue night. A full moon hung low in the eastern sky. He lay down on his bedroll and dreamless he slept.
It was only a few hours before he awoke again, neither refreshed nor exhausted, merely awake. As the morning dew boiled off into a brilliant day he saw a clump of men massed at the head of the Central Pacific. He started to walk toward them.
As he neared Ming could see them more clearly in their rice hats, the queues at the backs of their heads swaying as they moved in time with tie and hammer and nail. Closer still to the noise of their work he heard no talk save for their rhythmic counting. And when he at last reached them they did not seem to notice and if any recognized him they did not say so. Mutely he fell in among the Chinese l. . .
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