Idly FLipping through Fan-Tan, I came across the line "Untruth was a violin on which he played like a Paganini of bunkum." I blinked twice, checked the spine of the book to make sure that it was published by Knopf, and then turned further in: "'You bitch,' he breathed in her moist ear." I was enchanted. Fan-Tan's protagonist is Annie Doultry, a 1920s South Pacific sailor and smuggler, and when we first meet him, he is in prison, sprinkling his body with bait, trying to attract a cockroach. Annie quickly earns his freedom and begins reconnecting to Hong Kong's underbelly, visiting Yummee, a prostitute and the aforementioned moist-eared bitch. Annie quickly falls in with pirate Madame Lai Choi San, who has a daring plan to steal a fortune in silver from a government ship.
Of course, Annie is Brando, and the novel is made more entertaining by imagining the way that it was written. Brando would act out scenes (one can readily imagine him, on his private island, wandering about and gesticulating, wearing a muumuu, straining his voice higher for the female parts) as his sometime collaborator Cammell transcribed and, er, refined. Picturing Fan-Tan as some kind of macabre window into the mind of a megacelebrity is helpful: This is post-Godfather Brando, a prototype for present-day Michael Jackson, complete with dirty trials and otherworldly bizarre behavior.
The pure joy of Fan-Tan is simple to understand, though. Every line of every page struggles to be as purply out of control as it can be. The main character picks up and drops accents as though they were funny hats and eats a rooster heart to join a secret pirate society. The book simultaneously repulses and attracts, groaning under the weight of its pretensions, astounding with Marx Brothers metaphors that can't possibly be taken seriously, but it never once loses that wide-eyed quality of a vaudeville entertainer who will soft-shoe until you are painfully, and completely, entertained.