The premise is intriguing. Taking an ancient description of utopia by one of China's most beloved poets, T'ao, as fact, Dean Barrett sets out to actually find Peach Blossom Spring. The first to admit that his theory might be "crackpot", Barrett nonetheless grasps the reader firmly by the hand and starts.
His eye for detail results in some priceless toss-aways: a nightclub drummer encased in bulletproof glass; men who fish in tiny bodies of water between rice fields; word-for-word copies of literature found in hotel rooms like "The Sobering Peppermint Spray (necessary for all drivers, shareholders and writers)." Unfortunately every minutiae of the trip is described: a pre-flight visit to the dentist for a pulled tooth; gift shopping in Manhattan; a Hong Kong hotel room malfunctioning telephone message light.
Barrett's ability to speak Mandarin, self-described immaturity and pervasive sense of humor leads to laugh-out-loud scenes, the ultimate being his off-the-cuff comedic performance on a remote mountain path for a bunch of coolies and Tujia female singers. On the other hand, a childhood fascination with the beauty of Chinese women which he says he developed watching cowboys and Indians on TV –
Something about the long braided jet-black hair, the high cheekbones, the almond eyes, the smoldering looks, the curvaceous form filling out the buckskin, I was already, even then, a Caucasian male moth to a Mongoloid female flame
- can be more than a little tiring, more than a little sexist and degrading. We are regaled with the sexual fantasies, innuendos and desires of a raunchy 55-year-old teenager, and rarely are women described in anything other than purely physical terms.
From his near-hysterical worship of travel writer, Paul Theroux, to frequent rhapsodizing about China's past, and a surprising number of complaints about food and amenities (especially from someone who has lived abroad for 17 years), Barrett is long-winded, embarrassingly self-involved and tiresome. It's his incredible wit and unapologetic, self-deprecating honesty (he actually writes at one point: "God, what a boring sentence") that makes the experience of reading Don Quixote in China: The Search for Peach Blossom Spring ultimately worthwhile.