A WORD-DRUNK WRITER WHO SEES US TOO WELLPinning a label on T. Coraghessan Boyle is as hard as pronouncing his middle name. His stories, collected in Descent of Man, Greasy Lake and If The River Was Whiskey, veered between the real and the fantastic, taking huge chances and nearly always paying off. Funny, quirky and smart as it was, though, Mr. Boyle's fiction sometimes seemed mere finger exercise, all brilliant surface with nothing beneath it. Then came his acclaimed third novel, World's End, published three years ago. It is a satirical yet serious novel that demonstrated that T. Coraghessan Boyle could handle complex forms and material with the same panache.by David Raney
East is East has all of Mr. Boyle's trademark word wizardry while offering, like World's End, characters of depth and asking provocative questions about American society. The story follows Hiro Tanaka, a 30-year-old Japanese seaman who jumps ship off the Georgia coast and swims toward an America that exists only in his dreams. Scorned as a "happa," or half-breed, in his native country -- his father was an American hippie -- Hiro envisions the United States as one vast "City of Brotherly Love, " littered with creature comforts and waiting, open-armed to enfold the "mutts" of the world in blissful anonymity. He instead finds himself a notorious fugitive, pursued through jungle and swamp by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the enraged residents of Tupelo Island, which he has unhappily mistaken for the "mainrand."
The book interweaves Hiro's dogged efforts to reach his dream America with scenes at Thanatopsis -- ""death place"" to the Greeks, here an artists' colony on the island. Here Hiro finds his one ally, Ruth Dershowitz, a would-be author enjoying a stay on the colony grounds and an affair with the handsome, layabout son of the owner. Ruth, racked by writer's block, social insecurity and professional jealousy, protects Hiro without quite knowing why, and Mr. Boyle is wonderful at showing how motives we don't fully understand (or don't want to) can lead to surprising turns.
Through one hilarious mischance after another Hiro persists in his quest, bolstered by his beloved samurai code but hampered by a rather tenuous grasp of English and his utter bafflement at the behavior of Americans. Mr. Boyle gets in plenty of shots at rural Southerners, but Hiro's main antagonists are Detlef Abercorn, a reluctant INS agent with bad skin who has transferred from L.A. to Savannah for peace and quiet, and Lewis Turco, a crazed paramilitary racist who thinks amplified disco music and designer jeans will flush his Japanese quarry from the woods. The East-West lack of comprehension is mutual and total.
Mr. Boyle starts fast and keeps up the pace, moving smoothly among locals and narrative voices and keeping a nice balance of action and reflection. His dialogue is dead-on (except when he allows a sales clerk to call a single person "y'all") and his descriptions marvelous. Even a two-page aside on the Okeefenokee Swamp doesn't slow things down, because like the prose that surrounds it, the passage is swift, slick, word-intoxicated. T. Coraghessan Boyle is as inventive with language as Tom Robbins but without Mr. Robbins' frequent overreaching. It all seems effortless, and even in moments of suspense it is funny. At one point, wandering exhausted and delirious in the swamp, Hiro encounters a scrubbed-clean L.L. Bean family in a canoe who might be either his saviors or another set of tormentors. Trying to decide, he notes their backpacks "crammed with shirts, shorts, towels and socks ... These 'Amerikajin' seemed to have two of everything."
He watches them as he would an exotic species: "leaning forward, smiling like zombies, all three of them, absolutely delighted to be out here in this drizzling hellhole exchanging pleasantries with a mud-smeared Chinaman."
Mr. Boyle assembles a Keystone Kops troupe of minor characters -- idiot sheriffs, ego-driven artists, a rapacious press corps and assorted xenophobic busybodies -- on which to indulge his considerable gift for caricature. The central characters, though, are fleshed out and fully alive. He makes us laugh at Ruth and Hiro but feel for them, too, and the ending he concocts feels, as in the best fiction, both surprising and right. As the title suggests, it is gaps in understanding, betwe en couples or whole cultures, that provide the comic core of "East is East" and also its edge of sadness. However he pronounces his middle name, T. Coraghessan Boyle has much to tell us about the dangers involved in holding fixed images, whether of onese lf or of races, of nations or of the future.
David Raney is a writer in Atlanta.
© Copyright 1990 by The News & Observer Pub. Co.
--Sandye Utley, Cincinnati, Ohio
Last Page Update: 15 April 2001