This week, Joyland posted the winner and runners-up of its 2017 Open Border Fiction Prize. The price was open to writing or translation in English from any country in the world and was judged this year by Amelia Gray (Gutshot, 2015). The first-place winner is Jenny Xie’s “Lucky Frank,” a short story about a young girl, daughter of Chinese immigrants, who loses her favorite stuffed animal and gets separated from her parents in a Las Vegas casino.
Lucky Frank, as I called him—though admittedly he hadn’t brought me any luck—had fallen out of my pocket somewhere in Las Vegas. Now, Baba, Mama, and I occupied a booth at the Emperor’s Buffet in the Imperial Palace Hotel, a monumental structure on the Vegas Strip with eaves outlined in blue neon and the name written in tapering strokes meant to resemble Chinese calligraphy. I stabbed at the depraved plate I had made of orange chicken, French fries, enchiladas, and beef stroganoff, the food threatening to swell back up my throat in a glob of stomach acid.
Xie skillfully renders the grandiloquent world of caricature and excess that is the Strip, with its themed hotels and casinos that belligerently warp and Americanize global cultures with a generous coating of neon and greasy buffet food. The brilliance of the above opening scene, in which the narrator Kathleen sits with her parents in a parody of China, is underscored by the fact that her father gamed the hotel into a room upgrade and two-for-one meal tickets in what the narrator calls a display of his “street savviness and assimilation.” The story does not linger on their immigrant status or their difference, however; it is simply a fact in the background rather than the focus. Instead, “Lucky Frank” is a story about feeling lost—literally, as Kathleen is lost in the casino, and figuratively. The first grade-aged Kathleen is lost not so much as a Chinese immigrant in the culture of America, but as a child in the culture of adults.
When Kathleen’s parents send her with a handful of quarters to the arcade while they settle at a blackjack table, Kathleen gets a bright idea: to multiply her quarters at the slot machines. This is where things go wrong. As she illicitly pulls the lever, knowing this is out-of-bounds, and the machine spits forth small offerings of quarters, she attracts the attention of another slots-player: a pot-bellied man named Frank who makes Kathleen uncomfortable with his unsolicited attention. When she tries to slip him by heading to her parents’ blackjack table and finds them gone, Frank declares that she’s his problem now and that he’ll be her “responsi-billy-buddy” until she locates them.
From the start of their interactions, Xie’s descriptions of Frank create a growing feeling of dread, the kind that the reader can name but a first-grade girl cannot. Kathleen can only feel the wrongness as Frank takes her hand and leads her away in search of her parents. Xie’s descriptions of the casino and the people in it consistently exude an aura of vulgarity and unhealthiness, from the smoke-wreathed slot machines to the overly perfumed and short-skirted cocktail waitresses to the “oily bulb” of a blackjack player’s chin. The longer the reader spends in the story, the more claustrophobic and cloying the setting becomes, directly mirroring Kathleen’s growing feeling of entrapment and fear as Frank leads her through the casino, until both reader and Kathleen reach the pivotal point of dread: when Frank announces he needs to use the restroom and makes a line toward the door marked “Men’s.”
His hand, which had been gripping my four fingers, now forced its digits between my own, and I understood that he meant for me to accompany him inside. The carpet seemed to thicken under my feet, becoming plush enough to sink into with each step. I was too young to understand what might happen, but I could sense its large, jagged contours. I forfeited my indignation towards my parents and wished I had stayed near the arcade, where the girl would now be playing skee ball, lifting one foot behind her like an ice skater as she lobbed the stone.
“Lucky Frank” is soaked in the feeling of the illicit and mysterious world of adults, the gambling and cocktails, the perfume and miniskirts, and most of all the liminal and developing knowledge of sex. Xie’s rendering of the border of childhood, the feeling of being lost and wanting your parents, and the fearful and sometimes purposeful ignorance of adult knowledge is excellent and terrifying. Be sure to read it this week at Joyland, along with the second- and third-place winners of the Open Border Fiction Prize.