Excerpt from The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Fortunes

by Peter Ho Davies

The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies X
The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2016, 288 pages
    Sep 2017, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster

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Print Excerpt

Celestial Railroad

Beset by labor shortages, Crocker chanced one morn to remark his houseboy, a slight but perdurable youth named Ah Ling. And it came to him that herein lay his answer.
- American Titan, K. Clifford Stanton


It was like riding in a treasure chest, Ling thought. Or one of the mistress's velvet jewel cases. The glinting brasswork, the twinkling, tinkling chandelier dangling like a teardrop from the inlaid walnut ceiling, the etched glass and flocked wallpaper and pendulous silk. And the jewel at the center of the box?- Charles Crocker, Esquire, Mister Charley, biggest of the Big Four barons of the Central Pacific Railroad, resting on the plump brocaded upholstery, massive as a Buddha, snoring in time to the panting, puffing engine hauling them uphill.

It was more than a year since the end of the war and the shooting of the president - the skinny one, with the whiskery, wizened face of a wise ape?- who had first decreed the overland railroad. His body had been carried home in a palace car much like this, Ling had heard Crocker boast. Ling pictured one long thin box laid inside another, the dead man's tall black hat perched atop it like a funnel. People had lined the tracks, bareheaded even in the rain, it was said, torches held aloft in the night. Like joss sticks, he reflected.

For a moment he fancied Crocker dead, the carriage swagged in black, and himself keeping vigil beside the body, but it was impossible with the snores alternately sighing and stuttering from the prone form. "Locomotion is a soporific to me," Crocker had confessed dryly as they boarded, and sure enough, his eyes had grown heavy before they reached Roseville. By the time the track began to rise at Auburn, the low white haze of the flats giving way to a receding blue, vegetal humidity to mineral chill, his huge head had begun to roll and bob, and he'd presently stretched himself out, as if to stop it crashing to the floor. Yet even asleep Crocker seemed inexorable, his chest surging and settling profoundly as an ocean swell, the watch chain draped across it so weighty it must have an anchor at one end. Carried to the Sierra summit, he looked set to rumble down the lee side into Nevada and Utah, bowling across the plains, sweeping all before him.

Ling knew he should be looking out the window, taking the chance to see the country, to see if the mountains really were gold, but he hadn't been able to take his eyes off the steep slope of his master's girth. My gold mountain, he thought, entertaining a fleeting vision of himself?- tiny?- scaling Crocker's imposing bulk, pickaxe in hand, following the glittering vein of his watch chain toward the snug cave of his vest pocket.

Ling didn't own a watch himself, of course, but shortly after he entered service Crocker had had him outfitted with a new suit from his dry goods store, picking it out himself. The storekeep had been peddling a more modest rig?- "a fustian bargain, as it were!"?- that the big man dismissed out of hand as shoddy. He settled on a brown plaid walking suit instead, waving aside the aproned clerk to yank the coat sharp over Ling's narrow shoulders. "There now!" Crocker declared, beaming at him in the glass. "Every inch a gentleman's valet." He taught Ling how to fasten only the top button of the jacket, leaving the rest undone, to "show the vest to advantage," and advised him he needn't bother with a necktie so long as he buttoned his shirt collar. "Clothes make the man," the circling clerk opined, sucking his teeth. "Even a Chinaman." And then, of course, there must be a hat, a tall derby, which Ling balanced like a crown, eyes upturned. As a finishing touch Crocker had tucked a gold coin, a half eagle, into Ling's vest pocket?- a gift, though the cost of the outfit itself would come out of his wages?- where Ling could swear the thing actually seemed to tick against his ribs like a heartbeat: rich, rich, rich.

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Excerpted from The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies. Copyright © 2016 by Peter Ho Davies. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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