While millions in China were lifted out of dire poverty, author Lu Tao sees a dark side to this social and economic transformation, particularly in its impact on "the little guy." In this mordant yet sometimes wistfully told story, the little guy is a primary school teacher, Mr. Tian, who, due to his particular cultural and social skills, is drafted by officials of Silver City's government to be the greeter and escort of ranking cadres from Beijing and even foreign private investors in the local government's scramble for development funds. The shy and naive teacher, forever haunted by a dreadful event that gained him fame in his earlier years, is initially reluctant to re-enter the public spotlight. Starting with his expertise in "elephant" chess, Mr. Tian proves to be surprisingly adept in the increasingly dubious forms of entertainment that mirror the trajectory of Silver City's integration into the world of flies, from dance halls to Turkish baths and beyond. Now nicknamed "Granddad Nine," he remains stubbornly committed to a bright future for Silver City. However, the danger he unwittingly courts by his very success far exceeds the toll on his health that heavy drinking parties entail.
This cautionary tale is narrated by his seemingly simpleton son, Ah Gan, whose observations on life and events in society occasionally have a curious seer-like perception evocative of a Forrest Gump or a Huckleberry Finn. At the same time, the young lad is constantly baffled by the love of his life, the girl Xiao Yingzi.
Lu Tao writes with warmth and charm about the common folk of this arid land on the banks of the mighty Yellow River, but for the schemers, scoundrels and on-the-make, on-the-take local officials of this story, his satiric pen is barbed with what one critic in China has called "lethal intent."