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GISH JEN: We see every day stories of people who began in very humble ways and have risen to great heights. But their stories actually are extraordinary. And in order to have a story like Ben Franklin's, well, among other things, I think it helps to be white, to be male, to be in the right place at the right time. There's a lot of luck involved.

TYPICAL AMERICAN: It's an American story: Before he was a thinker, or a doer, or an engineer, much less an imagineer like his self-made-millionaire friend Grover Ding, Ralph Chang was just a small boy in China, struggling to grow up his father's son.

ANDREW DELBANCO: Ralph Chang is every man as immigrant. He is a Jewish immigrant, an Italian immigrant, an Irish immigrant. And he steps onto these shores, with a vague but hopeful sense that this is going to be the place where he finds a new life and invents a new self.

JULIA ALVEREZ: Ralph is a young Jay Gatsby, a Nick Caraway, coming not from the Midwest but from the Far East to America with his eyes wide open trying to, trying to fit into this world.

TYPICAL AMERICAN: He set main goals for himself. He was going to be first in his class, and he was not going home until he had his doctorate rolled up to hand his father. He also wrote down a list of subsidiary aims. 1. I will cultivate virtue. 2. I will bring honor to the family. What else? 3. I will do five minutes of calisthenics daily.

RICHARD YARBOROUGH: Ralph is the embodiment of the American dream: the individual who comes into this particular world as he gains access to what the cultural rules for success. He believes them. He models his whole life after them.

TYPICAL AMERICAN: 4. I will eat only what I like, instead of eating everything. 5. I will on no account keep eating after everyone else has stopped. 6. I will on no account have anything to do with girls.

NARRATOR: As a recent immigrant Ralph is both seduced and bewildered by America. With his sister Theresa and his wife Helen, he pokes fun at all the disrespectful, lazy behavior they find "typically" American.

He is still his father's son.

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The American Novel