Author Tags: Fiction, Music, Sports
Born in Hong Kong, Chong grew up in Vancouver, graduated from UBC Creative Writing program and received an MFA at Columbia University in New York City. His first novel Baroque-a-Nova is a coming-of-age story described by the publisher as a 'bitingly humorous take on the music business'. On the Monday he gets the boot from school for protesting a book ban, Saul St. Pierre, 18, learns his folksinger Mom, who abandoned him in his infancy, has committed suicide in Thailand. While coping with the influx of publicity resulting from his famous mother's death and the revival of her music due to a cover version by a German post-punk band, the protagonist leads a student walk-out in defence of a banned book that he has never read. "The intention was street theatre, a counter spectacle. Underneath the overcast sky, on the bleachers before the soccer field, sat Hedda, wearing a tiara made of aluminum foil, a huge, costume-issue ruby necklace, and a strapless ball gown, maroon and crushed velvet, with a sash across it reading, 'Miss Police State 1998'. She held at her side a bullhorn, which she handed over to Navi, who proceeded to direct the thirty-five members of Rent-a-Mob in the middle of the field... There were two or three men in dog collars, two women with neon-blue hair, a man wearing a rubber Pierre Trudeau mask, a woman with a "Take It Sleazy" t-shirt. They held signs carrying abusive slogans, some with no apparent political content like "Eat My Ass."...These days, to assert your presence in the world, you needed, really big signs." The novel shares its name with a jukebox in Helen's Grill, a greasy spoon on Main Street.
Chong's second book, Neil Young Nation (Greystone, 2005), is about the importance of Neil Young and his music in Chong's life. "This is strange but true:" he writes, "everything I know about being young I learned from Neil Young, a jowly man approximately twice my age and now hurtling toward senior citizenship."
Chong's third book, Beauty Plus Pity (Arsenal Pulp Press 2011), is about Malcolm Kwan, a twenty-some Vancouverite struggling to become a model. Upon his father's death and his fiancees' desertion, he discovers that at some point his father had an affair, resulting in his teenaged half-sister, Hadley. As he embarks on discovering more about his father's love child, he develops a friendship that proves to be exactly what he needed.
Kevin Chong's My Year of the Racehorse: Falling in Love with the Sport of Kings (Greystone 2012) was featured on the cover of B.C. BookWorld. [See below]
A follow-up book on horse racing, Northern Dancer (Viking 2014) requires no subtitle. The Canadian thoroughbred horse that won two of the Triple Crown races in 1964, as well as Canada's Queen's Plate, has become the most influential stallion in the sport of kings. An estimated seventy percent of thoroughbreds alive today are his descendants. For example, sixteen of the seventeen horses in the Queen's Plate in 2011 were Northern Dancer's grandchildren. Eighteen of the nineteen horses in the 2011 Kentucky Derby were his descendants. To mark the 50th anniversary of Northern Dancer's win at the Kentucky Derby, Chong was hired to provide a novelistic retelling of how Northern Dancer won the hearts of most Canadians in 1964.
Baroque-a-Nova (Penguin, 2001; US: Putnam, 2002)
Neil Young Nation (Greystone, 2005)
Beauty Plus Pity (Arsenal Pulp Press 2011) 978-1-55152-416-0 $17.95
My Year of the Racehorse: Falling in Love with the Sport of Kings (Greystone 2012) 978-1-55365-520-6 $22.95
Northern Dancer (Viking 2014) $30 978-0-670-06779-4
[BCBW 2014] "Fiction" "Music"
My Year of the Racehorse: Falling in Love with the Sport of Kings (Greystone $22.95)
If you’ve read five books by Author B, it’s a predictable pleasure to read a sixth. Like Masterpiece Theatre, it’s safe and terrific. But the jolt of being enthralled by something you didn’t expect to like, or even deign to open, that’s a peculiar thrill of its own. A horse of a different colour.
So how many real-estate crazed trendy folk in world class Vancouver – the increasingly self-satisfied city that can support the Canucks but not The Playhouse Theatre – will want to learn about the déclassé and arguably cruel sport of horse racing?
Hands ups everyone who is keen to imbibe a depressive guy’s story about assuming minority ownership in a mediocre racehorse named Blackie.
Are you immediately smitten with curiosity if you know the racetrack you’ll be visiting is humble Exhibition Park at the PNE and your narrator is a chronically single guy with seven ambitions:
1. Become a homeowner
2. Find true love
3. Settle down and start a family
4. See the world
5. Learn another language
6. Start a retirement plan
7. Get a tattoo.
Well, sometimes a longshot wins.
It turns out Kevin Chong’s My Year of the Racehorse: Falling in Love with the Sport of Kings is an unrelenting, brilliant, deeply personal memoir about much more than horses.
Blackie has Northern Dancer in her bloodline, the 20th century’s
most prolific sire, but that’s not saying much. “Being related to him,” writes Chong, “is like a Mormon being related to Brigham Young, who had fifty-six children and today has six hundred namesakes listed in the Salt Lake City phone book alone.”
Chong’s confessional candour verges on being Philip Roth-like, without the sex—that is, if we discount that Dink-Cleaning Day chapter in which he delights in describing the gentle art of cleaning smegma from a horse penis with soap and a sponge, at $20 per stallion.
Chong invested a few thousand dollars to become part-owner of Blackie mostly to get some material for another book. The Hong-Kong-born, Vancouver-raised creative writing instructor was by no means a horse racing expert, and that was the point.
“I had purchased a racehorse to intentionally expose myself to a level of risk and commitment that I had so steadfastly avoided throughout my life,” he writes. It was a risky investment that has paid dividends.
Reading kevin chong’s first book, Baroque-a-nova (Penguin 2001), a reader could be forgiven for thinking Chong might be one more creative writing wannabe who hadn’t lived enough yet. The novel shares its name with a jukebox in Helen’s Grill, a greasy spoon on Main Street.
Then Chong made a book about liking Neil Young’s music, Neil Young Nation (Greystone 2005). “This is strange but true:” he writes, “everything I know about being young I learned from Neil Young, a jowly man approximately twice my age and now hurtling toward senior citizenship.” That can’t be true.
Chong’s second novel, Beauty Plus Pity (Arsenal 2011), is about a twenty-something Vancouverite struggling to become a model. Upon his father’s death and his fianceé’s desertion, Malcolm Kwan discovers that at some point his father had an affair, resulting in his teenaged half-sister, Hadley. He develops a friendship with his father’s love child that proves to be exactly what he needed.
All of which leads to this latest work of stinging self-effacement and unremitting cleverness.
“I gaped again at the city’s skyscrapers, which were squeezed together like the pipes of a church organ.”
“The people I know scramble around manically, making weekend plans on island cabins or campgrounds; work becomes an obligation that’s discharged half-consciously, the way you load your dishwasher.”
We stick with the narrator with the same unfathomable loyalty that he confers on his hapless horse. That’s the genius of this book. To quote Chrissie Hynde, lead singer of The Pretenders, “It’s about the losing.”
There are seven failures or sideways turns for Chong, in reference to his seven wishes.
Unable to afford real estate, our narrator buys a racehorse. Instead of finding true love, he visits a breeding shed.
Instead of starting a family, he becomes a father figure to a kid. Instead of seeing the world, he visits the Saratoga raceway.
Instead of learning a language, he befriends the foul-mouthed trainer Randi (who operates her own dink-cleaning service on the side when she’s not doubling as a postal worker).
Instead of starting a retirement fund, he reduces his gambling losses.
Chong never does get a tattoo—but at least he has seriously considered it.
It’s a very funny book with quips that would do Woody Allen proud; lots of fascinating tidbits about horse racing (“The average rider has maybe a ten percent effect on the performance of the horse.”); ribald asides; deft snippets of dialogue throughout; bad romance; colourful characters and self-revelations that border on the excruciatingly frank:
“I always felt as though I were an exemplary friend: generous, convivial, and a fun drunk,” Chong writes in his faux memoir, Manual of Failure. “Most of all, I was low maintenance. I didn’t expect much from my friends with the implicit understanding that they shouldn’t expect much from me. What I ultimately learned was the harm one could inflict by doing nothing at all and refusing to engage.”
Here, at least, Chong engages the reader. There is no ending to this story. There are no twists of plot that cannot be divulged. Chong gets to the end of his fourth book. Life goes on.
“I bought a racehorse. From her example, I come to see persistence as its own success. You might win some and lose others, but you prove yourself every time you run honestly.”