If not for the popularity of weblogs and online journals, I might wonder who was the intended audience for An American Redneck in Hong Kong. The Internet has shown that there are some among us who are drawn to accounts of the everyday lives of unexceptional people. What might seem to some to be subject matter more suited to a private diary or a letter to a friend is addictively interesting to others. So Michael LaRocca's story of a regular American guy who finds himself in Hong Kong might prove to be, despite its lack of sensational plot points, an intriguing bit of cultural voyeurism. Unfortunately, LaRocca's book fails to meet even that relaxed literary standard.
An American Redneck is a memoir that chronicles LaRocca's life from the death of his mother in 1989 through his establishment of a new life for himself in Hong Kong and mainland China in 2002. In the interval, the author moves from Florida to North Carolina, runs through a series of jobs and pets, divorces his first wife, meets an Australian teacher via the Internet, and joins her where she teaches English in Asia.
LaRocca's story is told with a frustrating mixture of excessive detail in the minor areas and stupefying blankness in the major ones. His wives are mere ghosts in the narrative -- his second wife is never even given a name, ostensibly for concerns about her privacy -- but his pets and livestock are the subject of more than half of the book. LaRocca is rarely introspective, and the book's events play out in a matter-of-fact style that is never compelling. When, in the first chapter, the author promises to tell us of an "adventure" about one of his jobs, we wait for the plot to unfold or for an amusing anecdote to emerge; it becomes clear a few pages on, however, that nothing unusual is going to happen, and that we are simply going to be following an ordinary guy through an ordinary life. The rest of the book is made up of stories like the one about the time that his dog chased a bicycle. That's it. The dog didn't catch the bicycle or anything; he just chased it for a few yards. But LaRocca thought it was funny.
There is the promise held forth by the book's title -- the intriguing juxtaposition of a guy from the rural American south and an ultra-urban Asian culture -- to keep the reader turning the pages in hopes of, at last, encountering something unusual. However, despite LaRocca's claim in the prologue that a "large portion" of the book is set in Hong Kong, only about the final third is devoted to the period of his emigration. Worse, there's not much of the fish-out-of-water mayhem that's hinted at in the title. There is, in fact, precious little exploration of LaRocca's experience of China at all. Two of the seven chapters from the Hong Kong section of the book are devoted to -- you guessed it -- one of LaRocca's pets, this time a cat. The few vingettes of culture clash focus mostly on LaRocca's inability to understand much of what's going on around him -- not surprising, given that he never learned to speak any Chinese during the years he lived in Hong Kong -- and what he sees, he seems at a loss to put down on paper. Of a trip through a cave in the Chinese wilderness, he writes, "I remember the pool of water that reflected the scenery beautifully at one point, and some other stuff, but words can't do it justice." It's enough to make a reader wonder why he's spending a lot of time reading an account of a trip when the author admits that he can't think of a way to describe it.
An American Redneck could have been an interesting book. The disorientation and wonder that would, no doubt, be felt by any sheltered American who was dumped into the heart of overwhelming Hong Kong is the stuff of any number of entertaining books; it could be funny or frightening or political or poetic. But LaRocca gives us none of that. There are far too many dogs and cats and horses and pigs -- and far too little self-reflection -- to make this book engaging.