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Bridge of Bored
on 18 June 2004
Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart is a modestly entertaining novel, by turns amusing and dull as a textbook. With the author's tendency to grossly underplay certain story elements, it is simultaneously simplistic and confounding. I suppose an optimist could look at these traits and say to himself, "This is a book that works on manylevels." Being a pessimist, I'm afraid I fall under the, "This is a book that can't decide what it wants to be."
Ostensibly this is a book about Lu Yu, nicknamed Number Ten Ox, who travels from his rural town to the big city to engage a wise man to return with him and cure the village's children of a deadly sleeping sickness (fortunately the sickness is not so deadly that the heros cannot fart around for a year or so before actually helping the sick children). The only wise man willing to work for the paltry sum offered by Number 10 Ox is Li Kao, a twinkly-eyed old drunk who has the perplexing ability to con anyone out of vast sums of money (putting into question his insistence on sleeping on the floor in a dirty old tenement in the first place). The cure takes the two on a romp through a mythical old China peopled with the kind of moronic rubes found in all fairy tales - those greedy and stupid enough to hand over their money just because someone tells them they'll be receiving some magic beans and a donkey that poops gold coins.
Hughart stretches this hoary old chestnut within an inch of its elasticity as Master Li and Ox wander from city to city collecting bits of the Great Root of Power in order to effect the cure. But at times it appears that the only real purpose in doing all this traveling is to get Number 10 Ox laid, for he winds up in bed with a woman in every town. I expect this was meant to be amusing, but eventually became merely tedious.
I am not generally prudish, but I found myself startled by the astounding amount of violence in this book. Couched in amusing anecdotes and twinkly narrative are hundreds upon hundreds of murders enacted by or caused by the two "heros". I could see in many cases that the doomed characters deserved their fate, but not all.
Bridge of Birds has its moments, but I didn't find it to be the gem of which so many reviewers wrote. Still, I liked it enough that if I come across the sequels, I will surely read them, but I won't be traipsing hundreds of leagues, murdering everyone who gets in my way, to find them. I may not even cross the street.