There’s a column series on 8Asians, called “How to Be a Bad Asian”. I myself wrote one in the series, called “How to Be a Bad Asian: Turning Out Gay”. But, if there’s one way you can be a worse Asian than turning out gay, it’s to also to be a drug addict at the same time. The main character, Carson Chow in Eric C. Wat’s new book SWIM is a gay Chinese drug addict. Carson has also just found his mother has died, and he needs to plan his mother’s funeral. With that intriguing premise, how could you go wrong? Add to that, I’m the ideal target audience for this book, I mean, I’m gay, I’m Chinese, and I dealt with planning my mother’s funeral (although that was 10 years ago), but luckily I’m not a drug addict.
In my “How to be a Bad Asian” article I talked about how I was actually a really good Asian son in every way possible, in my own subconscious effort to over come being the really bad Asian in my parent’s eyes by being gay. Carson, in SWIM, behaves similarly, striving to be the good son, the one who brings his family together, and handles all their problems. It’s fascinating to watch his misguided belief that he’s succeeding at this as his control over his own life comes crashing down as his meth addiction manages to subvert his daily activities and interactions with his family.
While Carson’s drug addiction provides fodder for some epic failures on Carson’s part, the really interesting parts of the book are Carson’s interactions with his relatives, including his dad, a complicated typical Chinese son-dad relationship with little outright conversation, instead conversing through mutual understanding and facial gestures. Carson’s also taken it upon himself to be the caretaker for his mother’s mother, his Por Por, now that his mother is gone. Por Por is almost 100 years old, and has significant memory issues. But Carson’s drug addiction, causes him to be absent from his family’s crises, and forcing them to take over responsibilities like Por Por’s care, and the eventual planning of his mother’s funeral.
Reading about Carson’s failures due to drug addiction is cringe-worthy, but as I said earlier, the real gem of this book is watching Carson’s interaction with his family unfold, the ones previously mentioned and his interactions with his Young Aunt, his cousin Artie, and his older sister Jolie.
As expected with a drug addict, Carson has to hit rock bottom before he realizes he’s got a problem, and that he needs help. That’s not the surprise in this book, it’s the support he continually gets from his family, even in the face of all his failures due to his drug addiction. But that’s also a sign of a Chinese family, that family is more important than anything else, and you’re always there for your family.
There were a couple of areas in the book I thought didn’t flow quite right due to vocabulary, like when Carson includes the word “exigencies” in a normal conversation. I mean, who uses that word in normal conversation? There were a couple of those, like a word was plucked from a dictionary, rather than using a similar word that was more common. That’s my nit-pick for this book.
Finally I can’t finish a review of this book without a nod to the title, SWIM, which you don’t really understand, until it’s explained later in the book. I won’t spoil that for you, but know it’s a great title, and it’s very appropriate for this intriguing first time novel from Eric C. Wat.