When eighth-grader San Lee moves to a new town and a new school for the umpteenth time, he doesn't try to make new friends or be a loner or play cool. Instead he sits back and devises a plan to be totally different. When he accidentally answers too many questions in World History on Zen (only because he just had Ancient Religions two schools ago) all heads turn and San has his answer: he's a Zen Master. And just when he thinks everyone (including the cute girl he can't stop thinking about) is on to him, everyone believes him . . . in a major Zen way.
Fourteen-year-old San, an ethnic Chinese adopted by an Anglo-American couple as an infant, is as culturally American as apple pie, but he reinvents himself as a mysterious Zen Buddhist when "the thing" with his dad gets "ugly," and he and his mom leave Houston for a new life in Pennsylvania. San elects the exotic identity partly to spite his father, who extolled blending in, but also to impress his new classmates, especially a pretty girl clearly attracted to his aesthetic persona. The tension involves San's need to role play and to discover and affirm his real selfhood, which involves working through anger at a father whom San tardily reveals is a con man serving a prison sentence. Despite the novel's essential seriousness, San's quick mind and self-deprecating humor make it a light read. As a Zen devotee, San is forced into some tight spots-forgoing a "huge, juicy charcoal-y" hamburger for "the soggy horror" of a veggie wrap to maintain his Buddhist vegetarian identity, for example. In the end, his efforts pay off. He wins the girl, becomes a school celeb, leads the B basketball team to a Zen-inspired victory, is exposed as a fake, repents, and is enlightened and forgiven, all of which require the reader's repeated suspension of disbelief. More circumstances were contrived in service of plot and message than this reviewer prefers, but there are redeeming laugh-out-loud moments that make the book a worthy purchase for school and public libraries.