What the Zhang Boys Know by Clifford Garstang is, as you might have guessed from the descriptive subtitle, is a book of linked stories, the link here being the Nanking Mansion, an old building renovated into condos in an up-and-coming Chinatown neighborhood in Washington, D.C. The Zhang boys, around 3 and 6, have just lost their young, blonde mother in the opening story, and their father is having trouble dealing with his own grief at the same time as figuring out how to care for his young sons and deal with their confusion of the sudden disappearance of their mother. The young Zhang boys see everything, the peculiar habits of the neighbors, the comings and goings into their apartments, but are, of course, too young to fully comprehend the obvious conclusions to their observations.
The Nanking Mansion is full of an eclectic bunch of neighbors, all dealing with their own struggles – divorces, infidelities, heartbreak, financial woes – each trying to find a bit of comfort in their lives, if not meaning. The glimpses we get get into each of the characters lives are a bit like walking down a dark street, glimpsing in the scenes behind uncurtained, lit windows, except that all these neighbors interact in a very un-urban like way, possibly due to the limited number of condos in the building. The neighbors are friendly in a way that distantly echoes Melrose Place, sans communal pool and the comparatively easy drama of those early-twenties lives.
The stories compel the reader on, not because the characters are particularly worthy, morally upstanding citizens, but because they are deeply human and flawed, on the precipice of realizing something deeper, but, with few exceptions, ultimately failing to overcome their less-than-honorable character traits. Each of their voices are distinct, their portraits carefully crafted to reveal a darkness contrasted with a thin light, and a striking vulnerability. Though many of their lives seem bleak, and the characters are far from perfect, they do offer a hope of continuing, of moving on towards a richer, fuller life.