Book Review: Beijing Payback by Daniel Nieh
By Larry ClowAugust 8, 2019
Beijing Payback by Daniel Nieh fresh, smart, and fast-paced revenge thriller about a college basketball player who discovers shocking truths about his family in the wake of his father’s murder.
There are few burdens heavier than that of a parent’s legacy. Those lucky enough to have good parents may find themselves forever in those same parents’ shadows, trying always to meet some imagined, impossible standard. And those saddled with bad parents remain, in some way, forever on the run from a legacy they want no part of, attempting to atone for sins that aren’t theirs.
Victor Li, the protagonist of Daniel Nieh’s debut novel Beijing Payback, believes he falls into the first category and shoulders his burdens as such. When their father, Vincent, is murdered during a violent robbery, Victor and his sister, Jules, are left to take stock of his life. They know the surface story: a Chinese man who married a white missionary, had two children, and immigrated to America to start anew. He opened a string of successful restaurants, provided his family with a comfortable suburban life, cared for his wife as she died from cancer, and sent his children off to college.
But as the two siblings learn at the reading of their father’s will, his true legacy is murkier and much more dangerous. The restaurants they thought he owned are actually controlled by a mysterious parent company in China. Vincent may have been murdered by someone he knew. A strange young man is following Victor. And there’s a briefcase loaded with $150,000 in Chinese and American money, a gun, and a Chinese passport in Victor’s name.
Things get more complicated when Sun, an orphan Vincent secretly raised in China and trained to take his place when he left his criminal life, shows up. It’s Sun, with his tales of vicious gangsters and shocking criminal schemes, who pushes Victor to come with him to China to uncover the identity of his father’s murderer and settle some old scores. Soon, Victor has to choose between a comfortable life of dorm room parties and playing college basketball or traveling to China to honor his father’s last wishes.
But does he really have to choose? It’s a question that Nieh wrestles with throughout the novel. While Victor is physically fighting with Chinese gangsters, he’s also grappling with what he owes to his father—and to his sister. Does his comfortable life obligate him to settling old debts for his father? Were his father’s sacrifices truly that, or were they just crimes dressed up with later justifications? Who was his father, really—the model immigrant, the reformed gangster, or someone else?
Nieh lets Victor and Jules (though it’s mostly Victor) answer these questions in their own ways. Though he’s calm on the basketball court, Victor is rash when it comes to his father’s past. He’s eager to justify just about anything and ready to take action, regardless of the outcome. While his father was focused, tenacious, and confident, Victor is scattered, unambitious, and unsure. He’s desperate to prove himself, and Nieh mines those cultural and familial expectations for great drama:
Maybe Dad didn’t have all the same options that we had, okay? He did some dirty work because he had to, but he gave it up as soon as he could. He married a missionary and moved to the suburbs! If he worked his ass off and lied about his past so that we could have normal lives, don’t you think we should be grateful?”
She sets her jaw and glares at me for a moment. “I am grateful, but Victor, for once in your life, will you try to see some nuance? You’re your own person, not some extension of Dad, and you don’t have to buy all this patriarchal ‘head-of-the-family’ bullshit, all these melodramatic lines about shame and loyalty and debt. If you would just spend two minutes thinking about it rationally, you’d see that he’s asking too much. You’d realize that going to China to fight Dad’s enemies is a terrible, terrible idea.
Nieh’s written a compulsively readable thriller—Beijing Payback is, in the best sense, a pure cinematic delight that just happens to be a book. The plot is twisty and the action is propulsive. The book takes place over six days, and there’s a sort of breathlessness to Nieh’s prose. Victor rarely thinks things through or reflects on what went wrong, and so he charges, with Sun’s help, into ridiculously dangerous scenarios.
There are so many ups and downs, sudden reversals, and tense side-quests, that it’s easy to forget the book’s shortcomings. Victor is a bland protagonist, and Nieh doesn’t draw out the father-son bond between Victor and his dad enough. He’s a generic college kid—even the faults that Nieh gives Vincent turn out to be boring. Loyalty and self-doubt drive Victor’s actions, and it’s not quite enough—especially when Nieh does such great character work with Sun and Vincent.
In fact, when Vincent shares the details of his real-life story in a letter to his kids, the novel jolts to life, and I wished the book was instead about Vincent’s early years and the compromises and crimes that got him to America. The details—about Beijing before, during, and after the Communist Revolution, about the modern criminal landscape—are immersive, and the setting and characters in those flashbacks are so vivid that, when Victor returns, it’s disappointing.
I push away from the table and retreat to Ai’s tropical fish tank. A piece of the ocean. Angelfish. Clown fish. Tiger prawn. I try to put myself in Dad’s shoes back at the Deep Blue Sea in Hong Kong. I see my past as his dream of the future: a clean and light place, one he had never seen except on the silver screen. A place made out of car washes, golf courses, Starbuckses. What would I do in order to get there: Draw a clear line? Extinguish a few endangered species? Adopt an orphan and mold him into a weapon?
The other Li family members also get sidelined. Jules is sensible but largely two-dimensional, and she shows up mostly to disapprove of whatever Victor’s doing. Vincent and Jules’ mom isn’t so much a character as she is scenery in flashbacks. Nieh sidesteps the drama that comes with two kids finding out that their father essentially raised a secret step-sibling in another country (for the purposes of crime, no less), and while that opens up space for plenty of action, it also requires a lot of narrative hand-waving. When Sun tasks Victor and Jules and their friends with breaking into one of their father’s former restaurants, everyone is on board with the idea that, even by pop thriller standards, it’s jarringly unrealistic.
These are the missteps of a first novel, though. Beijing Payback is a promising debut. Nieh’s plotting is good (even if the requisite final twist is too obvious), his pacing is excellent, and he’s got a knack for building a thriller on a solid thematic base. All he needs next is a protagonist who’s as compelling and assured as the rest of the novel.