The subtitle of this small book of essays is "Taiwan, As It Seemed To Me." I was immediately impressed by the comma. Here, I thought, is a stylist, and the book's contents soon proved me to be right.
The important thing to ask of someone attempting a book of this kind is "Does he get under the skin of Taiwan?" I think Steven Crook does. He's by turns sardonic, wry and appreciative, but mainly he's astute, and in the last analysis, just.
Keeping Up With the War God makes very enjoyable reading. For a start, it's fun, but it's tough-minded as well. The author doesn't waste words, nor does he mince them. He likes Taiwan, warts and all. Indeed, sometimes it looks as if it's the warts he's especially fond of.
The title itself is as quietly ironic as much of what follows. It refers to the Plague Expulsion Festival that takes place in the small town of Yenshui two weeks after the Lunar New Year when celebrants parading an image of Kuankung subject on-lookers to what Crook calls "trial-by-fireworks."
Crook's quietly ironic statements are in fact a delight throughout the book. At one point he remarks: "The only Taiwanese who expect gratuities, it seems, are prostitutes, policemen and politicians." Elsewhere he comments on the widespread amnesia surrounding the Christian faith of Chiang Kai-Shek, and the habit he had of nevertheless taking part in local rites "difficult to reconcile with Methodism."
Crook also has a taste for seemingly measured but actually radical assertions. Individuals can start businesses here far more easily than their British counterparts, he points out, adding that the stifling of grassroots entrepreneurism in developed countries serves to protect established companies and ensure them a steady supply of labor. In Taiwan, by contrast, "economic freedom has resulted in severe congestion, noise and pollution, but great vitality."
No churchgoer, he nevertheless goes out of his way to praise the contributions of individual missionaries to Taiwan's social scene, generously ignoring the harm they surely do in spreading superstition. He's even at one point relatively charitable to Mormons. "The devout believe that ..." is a typical Crook introduction to the description of a religious rite.
The book, though short, has considerable range. Its author considers the history of surname exogamy (not being allowed to marry someone with the same family name), climbs Yushan in November, "circumnavigates" a police check-point, and spends an unremarkable night in a remote temple. "I expected no epiphanies," he comments, phlegmatic as ever, "and so did not leave disappointed." Some of the chapters have appeared before as articles in newspapers and magazines, but there's no sense of this being a collection. Instead, it feels like an impressionistic jigsaw. The strength of the author's style easily holds the book together, and allows him to clear all obstacles with minimal effort.
This is the best account of life in Taiwan I know, and by quite a long chalk. The author is clearly a learned man who is content to wear his knowledge lightly. As a small amusement on the side, he takes pleasure in exercising his vocabulary. "Viridescent," "mountebanks" and "extirpate" distinguish his pages, not to mention "stele," "stasis," "locus," "enucleated," "ataxic" and "animatronic."