Monday, March 26, 2007

American Shaolin by Matthew Polly

As a kid, I was a fan of the '70's TV show, Kung Fu, in which David Carradine wandered around the late 19th century U.S. trying to clear his name for a crime he didn't commit back in China but actually spent most of the time kicking much ass. Like me, Matthew Polly fell under the Kung Fu spell. However, while I spent my elementary school years half-assedly studying karate and eating my weight in Fudgetown cookies before losing interest, he not only studied kung fu, but Zen and Mandarin, as well. In the early 90's, he left college to journey to the Shaolin Temple in China to study with the monks there though he didn't know how to find it or if the temple still even existed (this was pre-Internet, pre-cell phones and he had been told it was destroyed during World War II). Naturally, everyone thought this tall, skinny Midwestern kid who spoke some Chinese and knew some kung fu was nuts, himself included, at times, but he found the temple and spent two years there, becoming a rather accomplished kickboxer before returning home to finish his undergrad at Princeton. While this could have been a gripping narrative of grit and determination and achieving one's dream, blah, blah, blah, it isn't. He achieves his dream, but it's a fast, funny, fish-out-of-water story that Bill Bryson wishes he could write. Points to Polly for also giving the reader a real sense of Chinese pride, culture, and their fear of the West and for sharing some of the secrets of the iron crotch.