The Wandering Ghost. Martin Limón. NY: Soho Press, 2007. ISBN: 978-1-56947-481-5
The old woman wore the traditional clothing we called an arirang dress—most Korean women not working the fields wore it--a long-sleeved short waistcoat topping a long skirt ending just above the ankles. The dull grey color contrasted with the bright orange-on-orange silk arirang dress of the young woman who hung her head in obvious embarrassment at what the old crone was spouting at us in Hangul.
I didn’t have to understand the words to comprehend. The old woman’s brown face smiled broadly, her mouth moving a mile a minute. With a tight grip on the youngster’s wrist, the crone yanked the girl forward. The kid stumbled in the soft footing, and, looking up momentarily, made eye contact through pleading eyes.
The old Korean pointed at us then the girl. Gesturing with an open hand and talking a mile a minute, she paused at the young woman’s face, then with a cackle, at the teenager’s bodice, then the wrinkled hand swept down the tall woman’s torso. It was a sales pitch; we were being offered a concubine, or maybe just a few frenzied moments on one of the sand piles deposited by yesterday’s storm that had turned the stream into a raging torrent, forcing us to stop here. The river ran fast but shallow enough that we could shovel sand and gravel in frenzied digging to build enough of a pad to gain traction, ford the river, and from there enjoy an open road to the crossroads at Cap Yong, where we’d turn left and continue our trip to Chunchon.
A few weeks later I saw the girl again. She was the going-away gift to a fellow in my unit DROSing back to Texas. The party was hosted by our houseboy, and he’d arranged the date. “She cherry,” he proclaimed proudly, “nineteen year”. The girl wore the same beautiful orange silk dress we'd seen back at the river, but it wasn’t clean anymore. She picked up a yakimando, dipped it in sauce, and pushed the morsel into Ol’ Ern’s mouth. Between bites, she took long pulls at a highball glass filled with the sour mash whiskey we were swilling that night.
The memory of that suffering child has tortured me since that day at the first ford, back in 1970. It’s a feeling of helplessness and nagging anger that consumes Martin Limón’s chicano character in his latest Sueño and Bascom detective novel, Wandering Ghost. As Limón develops his story, readers will share Sueño’s and my emotions, adding to the pleasure when the bad guys get theirs in the end. Some of the bad guys, do, at any rate. Darn it, a lot of them get away.
The entire Limón oeuvre makes fascinating reading. The detective stuff is first rate. The intercultural content, moreover, adds dimensions that won’t be found in other chicano literature. The linkages between U.S., Korean, and Chicano culture—language, custom, ugliness-- create a rich fabric of detail that in themselves make the novels worthwhile and fully illuminating.
Limón’s use of GI pidgin is so completely accurate it throws me into reveries of nostalgia. Moolah me says one character, “I don’t know,” in other words. The expression is still an active part of my vocabulary, I said it so many times back in 69-70, along with chingo—pal, not “chingao” by the way-- karra chogi--“split” or “get out”--and taaksan meaning “a lot of”. And the nonverbal—kimchee breath. Fuchi! Here are the small local color details that lend uncanny authenticity to the US-Korean experience. Most unusually, Sueño speaks Hangul. It’s his unique edge that allows him to dig out leads that would be closed to the typical xenophobic GI. The one objection I have to this is Sueño’s insistence on calling toilets by a more Korean word, byonso. In my time, the typical GI would proclaim his need to “go banjo.” One should note that, unlike most novels, Limón’s characters spend a lot of time going banjo. And on a side note, I wish the publisher had selected a larger, legible font for all those italicized words.
Korean custom, architecture, dress, art fill the 314 pages of Wandering Ghost, sometimes excessively. For example, Limón several times signals a dwelling’s luxury by describing its tile roof, without accounting for the material of more humble structures in the city of Tongduchon, or the straw-covered roofs of country folk. People who’ve never squatted over a Korean porcelain toilet—installed at floor level—may pause at certain paragraphs to ponder the kinetics of such. When Limón describes the antique celadon vase, he does it with such affection I wouldn’t be surprised to see that object in his own home. Indeed, Korean celadon will take your breath away; it did mine. But who had the taaksan tone—lana-- required to buy one? In this novel, blackmarketing lifer assholes. The vase offers a small joke at the reader’s expense. After the exquisite description, the vase is injected into a firefight and inferno, and one fears this thing, like so many of the novel’s delicate beauties, will be destroyed in the confluence of US and Korean culture. The vase survives, probably. Maybe. Who knows? I hope.
Over the course of his five novels, Jade Lady Burning, Slicky Boys, Buddha’s Money, The Door to Bitterness, Limón has provided details to make George Sueño more chicano. In Wandering Ghost we receive a lot more biographical detail about Sueño’s foster child experience in a generalized East LA than in earlier work. Here again, Limón could provide needed detail to enrichen the character, but at least he’s not merely asserting his character’s identity. Young Sueño’s fearless punchout with some cholos, for example, would benefit from knowing if they were Maravilla, White Fence, Lote or some other group of pendejos. It would add geographic authenticity to sweeten the irony, when Sueño recalls, “He could’ve killed me but he didn’t. Kids were decent back then.” Which kids?
Limón’s story won’t earn him any medals from the 2nd Infantry Division. The entire outfit is calumniated as elitist assholes whose allegiance first and foremost is the division, “second to none.” That’s exactly what all the signs read, a standing signal of implied inferiority that drives them to close ranks against the REMFs from Eighth Army. I suppose the infantry has a right to resent the rear echelon, though I remember nothing but puro envy the few times I got down to Seoul from Bravo where I lived on a missile site. Eighth Army had a restaurant serving military and United Nations staff where I ordered wine, ate from china and silver service, and ate stateside food. Damn, they had it good! Up on the mountain we ate powdered eggs or C-Rations, and in the Chunchon ville some ramyon noodles, “high-a-rice-a” which was rice with brown meat gravy, and for special treats, barbequed dogmeat.
I wonder at a major omission in the story, Soul Brother GIs and their business girls. A pivotal character in Limón’s story works in The Black Cat Club. Limón doesn’t explain that the military sponsored strict segregation, though he does allude to race riots that occurred “a couple of years ago”. Indeed, I have first hand knowledge of one that made me sick—the library at Camp Red Cloud was torched by a pair of soliders from Compton. Not surprising. Black soldiers congregated in their own hooches—quonset huts. In the ville, they had their own clubs where Anglos were unwelcome and chicanos with black buddies were tolerated, generally. The whores who served the white and brown GIs were low status people in the social structure, but the lowest caste business girls were those who worked the Soul Brother clubs and tea houses. In a story about gender discrimination and sexual exploitation, I suppose there wasn’t room to delve into the ugly racial dynamic that persisted back then.
Finally, I suggest there’s a bit of symbolism to be found in the central character, the round eye MP, Cpl. Jill Matthewson. Wandering Ghost takes place in the mid 1970s (I DROS’d--Date Return from Over Seas— out of Korea in August 1970). She’s among the first US woman soldiers in a hardship post. People who haven’t experienced military sexism should understand the complete accuracy of Limón’s account of the crap Cpl. Mathewson is put through—I was ordered to give a woman Captain an administrative stonewall, for example. The blackmarketeering, the exploitation of young women, the breaking in of “cherries” ring true, too. In the New Testament, one of the best-known lines from the Gospel of Matthew has to do with knowing the truth and letting it set you free. Sueño’s and Jill Matthewson’s exposé of US military and Korean soulless corruption presents an ugly truth that demands exposure.
“No point in lecturing you,” Ernie replied. “Because you know what you did.”
Colonel Proffert’s voice lowered. “And what exactly,” he said, “was that?”
“You let two GIs get away with murder.”
Colonel Proffert sputtered but before he could reply, Ernie plowed on.
“And what’s more important, you sent a message to every GI in Division that no matter how recklessly they drive, no matter who they kill or maim, the Division will protect them from having to take responsibility for their actions.”
There’s two and a half tons of truth in that.
The girl in the orange silk arirang dress is in Wandering Ghost, too, throughout the novel.
“We sat with the aging kisaeng on a wooden bench in an inner garden. She told me that her name was Blue Orchid and she’d been sold by her parents to a kisaeng house … when she was twelve years old. Her training had been rigorous and traditional.” Earlier, investigating an old brothel, Sueño and Bascom notice a closet too small to stand in, too tiny to stretch out. The blackmarketeer explains it was for cherry girls. The traditional way to train these novice prostitutes was to confine them here until she cooperated, or her keepers beat her into submission.
Maybe the truth will set the next girl free.
Wandering Ghost raises some ugly specters of US military and Korean society. It’s a work of fiction. Keep reminding yourself that. While I cannot attest to the accuracy of the tawdry and criminal elements in the novel—I was never a ville rat, that's me teaching English to Korean soldiers—everything else rings true. Read Wandering Ghost. Ample action, tension, engrossing. If it’s your first Martin Limón novel, kudda chogi bali wa to your nearest bookstore and order up the rest. This is number hana stuff, chingos.
Here we are gente, the first Tuesday of the final month of 2007. My final year of full employment. A while back I described one of my first retirement projects, a book excerpting passages in chicana chicano novels of Los Angeles, illustrated with my photography. Martin Limón, Wandering Ghost in particular, has some wonderful descriptions that I shot photos of; hooches, local produce, sackcloth mourners, old men in traditional dress, military stuff. I'm adding it to my list.
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See you next week.