Not with a Bang is a novel about the invention of a new revolutionary weapon and how it completely
destabilizes an already unstable near future America. In the satirical tradition of writers such as Charles Dickens, Kurt Vonnegut and Tom Wolfe, this novel features characters such as a vigilante appliance
repairman, a Vietnamese abducted bride and her abductor haunted by ghosts, a black youth gang
practicing voodoo, Adolf Hitler’s son, lesbian mad scientists and even Arab terrorists.
Drawing from the mythology and folklore of several cultures, just like America itself, it is a darkly humorous romp through our deepest fears of weapons proliferation and vengeance gone berserk.
I currently teach (can you guess?) college writing, but have also taught courses in literature, mythology and folklore, film, media studies and communication. I am also a professional musician and recording engineer.
Not with a Bang has a strange and rather sad history. I wrote virtually the entire novel in the mid to late 1990’s, but put it away for 10 years after 9/11 because I felt that the racial, cultural and gender hatred and conflicts I depict in the novel were no longer pertinent, since it seemed that the nation was ready to unify against a common enemy. Unfortunately, this novel has become a work of uncanny prophesy. I wrote the elementary school shooting chapter PRIOR to the Columbine shootings in 1999. I also wrote the scene where the terrorists’ plan to use weaponized anthrax PRIOR to the anthrax attack just after 9/11. I sincerely hope that the race war I depict near the end of this novel will not come true, and that is the primary reason I have published this novel now. It was believed by many cultures that the gift of prophesy was in fact a curse from the Gods, and I’m beginning to believe that.
This excerpt from the novel Not with a Bang depicts the back story for one of the main characters. She is a beautiful Vietnamese woman who is eventually abducted by the evil Dang Yeak and brought to the US. She and Yeak are subsequently haunted by the ghosts of those Dang Yeak killed to abduct her. Her rescue by the main character Leo sets in motion many of the plot elements of the novel. The nuptial contest is common in folklore and the Kieu and Dang Yeak sub-plot incorporates many other images and ideas taken from Chinese and Indo-Chinese myths and legends, but set in contemporary times.
Not With a Bang
Phan Thi Kieu had a far different set of experiences in her upbringing. Though not affluent by American standards, she was the only daughter of one of the most powerful and wealthy men in the region of Vietnam where she was born. Her two brothers and father protected and pampered her. She was dressed like a small princess and began to genuinely believe that she was blessed and destined to escape the poverty surrounding her by the sheer elegance of the persona her family had created for her. Younger by several years than Dang Yeak, she had no interest in her elders’ memories of the war. Also, the fact that her father had been a Communist sympathizer and sheltered several political figures meant that her family was spared much of the hardship after the war.
As she blossomed into a young woman of robust, sensual beauty, she inspired such a tidal wave of interest in both the boys and the men of the town that her father felt it necessary to limit the field of her suitors by demanding some special and extraordinarily difficult test to assure their worthiness. Kieu’s father thought long and hard but finally came up with what he felt was the perfect test. It would require not only courage, dexterity and strength but also a Zen quiet and abandonment of ego that would assure that Kieu’s husband would be a true hero. All the villagers waited in rapt anticipation when Kieu’s father began to build an elaborate structure in the front yard of their large home.
He built a sturdy chicken coop with three sides covered by thin wooden slats but with the fourth side open. On the side opposite the open side there was a small square hole formed by two slats running vertically and two heavy pieces of wood nailed across them horizontally. On the open side he planted a thick wooden stake in the ground with a neat circular hole cut into it near the top, making it look like a giant sewing needle. Through the square hole in the box and the hole in the wooden stake he slipped a metal shaft, an axle from a farm wagon that had long ago been left to rot in a field. Then into the box he put some hay, a small dented pan with some water in it, and finally, his best and most beautiful chicken Fi Tu Sho. On one end of the axle, the part that passed through the square hole in the box, he put a short crank arm. On the other, the part that passed through the giant needle, he mounted a wagon wheel that he had saved from the same ruined wagon. The spokes in the wheel were thin but numerous, set about two inches apart.
As he finally tapped in the cotter pin to hold the wheel onto the axle, the town’s people were all gathered around, whispering to each other and speculating on the function this strange device would serve in his daughter’s nuptial contest.
Kieu’s father turned to them and in his best, booming voice told them the conditions of the contest for his daughter’s hand. Any prospective suitor of his daughter would have to remove the bird from the cage through the spokes of the wheel without harming the bird in any way. When a man had brought him his prize chicken, unhurt, he could have Kieu for his bride. The old man then turned to make his way back to his house, but before he did, two men he had hired took their positions at the box. One of them, an old man with no front teeth but a full head of glorious, long hair took his place at the crank and began turning it in slow deliberate spirals, as if he knew he would be there for a long time. The other, a Viet Cong veteran with a long ugly scar running down the entire length of his right leg, took his place beside the box with a rifle. He was there to ensure that there would be no foul play or cheating, and the town’s people knew he had a very bad temper. He sat on a small box with his wounded leg sticking straight out in front of him, the barrel of the gun resting between his big toe and middle toe.
Several of the handsomest young men in the community circled around the apparatus and, as if seeing some new species of animal never seen before, silently gawked while their minds worked and worked. After nearly two hours, one of them, an employee at the local post office, put his hand out almost dreamily and let the spokes flutter across his fingernails, tip-tip-tip, and then withdrew his hand. He looked at the others and they looked at him. Almost as if choreographed to some silent piece of music, they all stood up together and walked off, just as the long shadows of the late afternoon had begun to turn to a hazy dusk. Looking out her window, Kieu began to sob and sniffle softly.
Five days went by. The old man died from the stress of turning the wheel and had been replaced by increasingly shorter shifts of children paid a token fee by Kieu’s father. All involved were growing annoyed at the futility of continuing the process and Kieu’s father had just decided to dismantle the coop and consign his daughter to life in a nunnery when a young handsome man no one had ever seen in the town before approached the cage and kneeled down before it.
He sat an entire morning like that, staring at the wheel’s somewhat erratic rotation. Two small, conical piles of sawdust had accumulated beneath the coop. After five days, the friction of the axle had ground the holes in the box and post into elliptical shapes and the axle now flopped about and squeaked embarrassingly when turned. Word of the young man’s presence had spread through town and a large group again assembled at Kieu’s house. What happened that day has since become one of the most famous tales to come out of Indochina.
The young man, whose name no one could pronounce because it sounded exactly like the sound of a waterfall, sat there nearly the whole day. Then, just when it seemed to the townspeople that he too would be turned away by the difficulty of the task, he did a remarkable thing. He waited for a lull in the day when everyone had fallen asleep in the coolness of the late afternoon. Fi Tu Sho had been watching the young man distrustfully, twitching and grumbling occasionally. The young man had been staring at the bird as if he could draw the bird through the spokes by will alone. The guard and the child cranking the wheel seemed to be hypnotized, their mouths hanging open like the pupils of two unblinking eyes staring back into the young man’s face. Kieu too was staring out the window at the spectacle. This undeserved rapture from his employees disturbed and angered her father who decided to end the contest immediately and send the strange young man on his way. He was making his way down the walkway and had just inhaled to make his pronouncement when the young man’s plan unfolded.
He had been, as I have said, kneeling a meter or so in front of the cage staring through the wheel the entire afternoon when he suddenly brought his hands together and clapped loudly while, at the same time, making a shrill squawk; unmistakably a chicken’s squawk, so accurate a mimicry in fact that there are those who, to this day, deny that he had made the sound. However, that is foolish modern cynicism for the young man had spent years learning the languages of beasts and when word had finally reached him of this contest he set out immediately, knowing that it was his destiny, and his alone, to perform this feat.
Kieu’s father stopped immediately and all the town’s people who had been dozing snapped to alertness and watched as Fi Tu Sho began to flap wildly around the cage. The chicken then clung with his feet and beak to the spokes of the wheel as it turned around. The weight of the bird now made the already unstable apparatus begin to tilt and lurch in squeaky convulsions with every rotation. The young boy consigned to crank the wheel had stepped back, unable to control the violent whirling of the crank as the entire chicken coop fell over in a crunch that finally silenced the annoying twang of the wheel.
As the structure landed on its side, the wheel dropped off the spindle and, with Fi Tu Sho still clenching the spokes and clucking angrily, the wheel rolled down the incline of the sloping land beside Kieu’s house and, gaining speed, started to head directly for the largest tree in Kieu’s yard, an ancient and majestic giant named Lo. Kieu’s father grasped his gray, straggly beard and pulled hard in frustration and horror as Fi Tu Sho and the wheel hurtled toward the tree trunk.
What happened then some would deem luck, but it was unquestionably a miracle. Lo’s great body was so old, and his root system and branches extended so far that his prodigious canopy of leaves formed a smooth curving, semi-circular arch. To everyone’s surprise, the wheel did not shatter against the tree but sped along one of the largest roots, ascending the sloping curve of the tree’s trunk to the first great branch where it was shot into the air back towards the amazed crowd, the terrified chicken still clinging to the airborne wheel. Everyone scattered from the path of this strange projectile except the handsome young man with the name like the sound of a waterfall. Instead he extended his arms skyward.
Kieu’s father watched him dumbfounded as the wheel began to descend in a long arc directly over him, the chicken still riding on top. At that moment, when the wheel was only two meters or so above his head, the spoke which Fi Tu Sho had been clutching broke free. This brought about a rapid chain reaction in which the wheel fractured in mid air, with fragments of wood swirling like snow down upon the young man. The rim of the wheel dropped over his head like a ring slipped onto a slender finger and Fi Tu Sho fell into his outstretched hands still holding the remnant of a spoke in his beak. Then, matter of factly, the young man stepped over the wheel and carried the somewhat dizzy but intact chicken to Kieu’s father, setting him into his hands.
Making his way boldly up the walkway, he entered the house to bring forth his bride. The townspeople were cheering and laughing with giddy joy when the young hero emerged with Kieu clinging to his arm, surveying the somewhat chaotic scene with wide-eyed awe. Kieu’s father remained silent and stony-faced as his daughter was led away from her childhood home with only the clothes on her back.
As it turned out, Kieu’s father made some efforts to find his daughter, using his influence and power to attempt to discover which town the couple had settled in, but was never able to. His second wife, Kieu’s stepmother, continually urged him on, filling his old head with her repeated objections to the young man’s methods for winning the contest. To her it was clear that he did not actually reach through the wheel to grasp the bird, and the entire contest must be retried at once with suitors other than the impertinent young man. Even as several years passed with no word of his daughter, Kieu’s father never became completely reconciled to the outcome of the famous contest and, to his dying day, felt bitterly betrayed.