Sunday, May 05, 2024

the last book I read

East Is East
by TC Boyle.

Hiro Tanaka has a bit of a problem. And his problem is this: he's currently plummeting from the deck of a cargo ship towards the Atlantic Ocean. It should be emphasised that this is a self-inflicted problem, as he chose to jump - the ship is currently close(ish) to the American east coast (specifically Georgia) and Hiro has some slightly ill-thought-out ideas about making a better life for himself in the land of the free, but nevertheless he first has to do more immediate things like not drowning and heading in the right direction to reach land.

Fortunately Hiro's USA-dar is functioning correctly and he soon has the gamey tang of the east coast of Georgia in his nostrils. Before he makes landfall, though, he has a brief encounter with a boat, somewhat to the surprise of its two naked occupants, Ruth Dershowitz and Saxby Lights, who'd snuck offshore in Sax's boat for a bit of discreet al fresco boning. Ruth is an aspiring novelist, currently a resident at a writing retreat (run by Sax's mother) located on an island off the Georgia coast. This same island is where Hiro has eventually hauled himself ashore; after getting his breath back he is somewhat dismayed to discover that he's on an island with no way off except by boat, and therefore trapped unless he can enlist someone's help. 

His first couple of attempts at enlisting help don't go very well - he startles islander Olmstead White into burning down his own shack, and after being taken in by a rich elderly (and slightly dotty) lady and fed and clothed, on the mistaken assumption he is Seiji Ozawa, he has another chance encounter with the same guy and has to make a speedy exit. Reduced once again to skulking in the woods and scavenging for food, he eventually throws himself upon Ruth's mercy after an encounter at her writing shack. 

Ruth has a host of problems that taking on Hiro just adds to: Sax is great and all but occasionally a bit distracted by a mild obsession with his aquarium and acquiring exotic specimens to put in it, she is supposed to be producing some written output to justify her presence at the retreat and consumption of the lavish food and drink provided, and she's just learnt that her fellow writer, arch-rival and apparent megabitch Jane Shine will be joining the retreat for a six-week residency. 

Eventually Ruth's subterfuge is rumbled and Hiro is arrested, briefly - his own ingenuity and determination and the comical incompetence of the police result in him escaping, stowing away in the boot of a car and being driven away to freedom, Well, sort of freedom - he is eventually released from the boot of the car only to find that it's Sax's car and he's still in the vicinity of the Georgia coast, where Sax has come to escape all the hoopla around Ruth and for a bit of quiet fish-gathering for the old aquarium. Fat chance of that, as it happens, as Hiro flees into the swamp with the police in hot pursuit and also quite keen to probe how much Sax knows about his escape rather than letting him go off and swan about with a fishing net. They also want Sax and, in particular, Ruth's help to persuade Hiro to give himself up, Ruth being about the only American person he knows and trusts.

So Ruth helps to retrieve a sick and semi-conscious Hiro from the swamp and visits him in hospital, having seemingly accrued some scarcely-deserved journalistic kudos from the whole episode. Hiro, by contrast, has seen his dreams of making a better life in America crushed, and asks himself, what's the point of having a life if it's not the life I imagined?

Some of Hiro's problems, particularly at the end of the novel, derive from his devotion to the works and associated worldview of Yukio Mishima, a writer of interesting novels but a bit of a nutter and not really a healthy influence as a life guru. All of which results in an ending which is a bit of a downer and prompts a reaction of: oh - is that it?

That's not a general reflection on the book, which is generally very readable, as Boyle's books always are, although there is a bit of conflict between Hiro's story and Ruth's. Hiro's story is a rollicking adventure story with lots of incident while Ruth's is more of a pointed satire on writers and their assorted foibles and vanity. Both worthwhile subjects, but they rub along together slightly awkwardly - while we're in the company of the writers at the retreat (and I haven't done a page count but I suspect we spend more time here than with Hiro) we yearn for the more visceral stuff involving Hiro and his adventures, and while we're with Hiro we want to find out more about, for instance, where Ruth and Jane Shine's rivalry originated. There's some vague allusion to them having been at high school together but no more than that. 

Any novel set in south-east coastal America will draw comparison with Carl Hiaasen, most of whose novels are set in Florida and one, Skinny Dip, starts with the principal character falling off a boat into the sea, although she was pushed rather than jumping voluntarily. Calling your principal character Hiro is also reminiscent of Snow Crash, although Boyle stops short of anything quite as arch as Hiro Protagonist. 

Anyway, it's all very entertaining, though probably not as good as its immediate predecessor World's End, and certainly not as good as the later novels The Tortilla Curtain and Drop City. The latter remains my favourite Boyle of all.

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