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Bu San Bu Si: A Taiwan Punk Tale Paperback – May 2, 2017
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“Richly imaginative and full of deft observational touches” —Freddy Lim, Chthonic lead vocalist
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J.W. Henley's prose is stunning, with a lot of descriptive depth, however without any dreary or dragging diatribes on meaningless details. Every single narrative chunk serves a purpose. The characters are realistic and relatable. Reading the book description one might be fooled into thinking this is a book about a band, the music scene of Taiwan, or something of the sort. It is that, too, but first and foremost it's a story of personal tragedy.
The protagonist, like any tragic hero, is neither "evil" nor "good"; in other words, he is not stereotyped and caricatured. Like any tragic hero, his woes are a result of hamartia, an error in judgment. There is a long, painful journey in store for him (and vicariously for the reader), and it always remains realistic, self-reflecting, and meaningful. I must say, J.W. Henley's style strongly reminded me of my own - I found similarities in the way we both, as authors, approach the philosophical depths of the (seemingly) mundane, the significance of the (seemingly) ordinary, the exhilaration brought by the revelation of the (seemingly) unimportant.
The plot progression is very sense-making, and never does the author fall into the trap of sentimentalism or cheap wayouts. The ending is not entirely inevitable, but still satisfactory. All in all, a gem of a book; highly recommended
I live and work in Taipei, where much of Bu San Bu Si unfolds, and it’s quite a strange feeling expecting to bump into protagonist, Xiao Hei, or his mates, getting drunk and causing trouble. I think I’d like to.
Bu San Bu Si - the title comes from a Taiwan phrase meaning neither three nor four, used to describe wayward youths - is the story of Xiao Hei, reckless and seemingly unredeemable denizen of Taiwan's little explored punk underbelly. Desiring fame, fortune and respect (but only on his terms), Xiao Hei proceeds to sabotage every opportunity that comes his way, leaving a trail of wrecked lives of friends, lovers and family members in his wake. To say any more would enter into spoiler territory, but despite the protagonist's best (or worst) efforts, Bu San Bu Si is, at its heart, a tale of redemption.
Henley paints a picture of a part of Taiwanese society most Westerners (or Taiwanese, for that matter) will never see, and he does so with the eye and pen of a writer who's done some time there. I am not necessarily a better person for having read this book, in the same way that, decades later, I'm still not sure that I'm a better person for having spent a chunk of my adolescence skulking around NYC's lower east side stinking of spray paint, vomit and cheap beer, horrifying people resembling the me of today. But I am a more interesting person for it. And you will be a more interesting person for having read Bu San Bu Si.