Friday, November 30, 2012

FFB: LUCKY COME HAWAII by Jon Shirota (Bantam 1965)

My copy is of the original edition.
Jon Shirota's novel Lucky Come Hawaii (in the local Pidgin, as you might reasonably guess, [you] are fortunate to have found yourself in Hawaii) is a book of some literary merit, considerable innovation at time of publication (in capturing Hawaiian Pidgin as it was spoken at the time of World War 2 and not altogether differently in succeeding decades, in being apparently not just among the first "bestselling" novels by an Asian-American but the first specifically by an Okinawan-American, from an oppressed minority in Japan that found itself in a somewhat recapitulated position in the Hawaiian social strata, even as "mainstream" Japanese-Americans found their fortunes and collective power rising in post-War and -statehood Hawaii, and in being the first novel, I believe, to deal with the "neighbor island" locals' experience during and after the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor), and the object of abiding love in Hawaii...its paperback original (from Bantam, a relative rarity) edition has been out of print for decades, but a small press, Bess Press (as in, Pidginly, "best press") did an edition in 1985, and the University of Hawaii-sponsored little magazine Manoa reprinted it as the bulk of the content of an issue in 2009, essentially offering the Winter issue as a new edition/reprint of the novel.

Bess Press edition.
And the backstory of the novel is pretty interesting, as well, as Jon Shirota was a somewhat troubled American-born high school student on Maui on 7 December 1941, whose parents had been fresh off the boat from Okinawa not so very long before his birth, so while the novel isn't quite autobiographical, it was very much of his experience at that time. Shirota dropped out, was drafted into the immediately postwar Army, and eventually was posted to Japan; after the war, he served as an IRS accountant, though, having read From Here to Eternity at the time of its release, decided that he wanted to write, and became a constant petitioner to the Handy Writer's Colony, which in its larval form had been the eccentric program in which James Jones had finished his first novel, and to which Jones had returned as primary example and chief financial sponsor (as well as having been the paramour of the founder and guiding spirit, Lowney Handy; her husband was a co-founder, and apparently withstood serial affairs--as hard as that might be to envision, bed-hopping in an artists' colony, particularly a rather culty one). Handy, having consistently rejected Shirota over a stretch of years, finally decided in 1963 he'd "developed" enough to enjoy the ministrations, including still-liquid Jell-O-drinking, of the Colony, and let him in, and presumably it was due in some part to Handy and Jones that the book was taken by Bantam, which not for nothing also compares it in the cover blurb to another Colony project, Jere Peacock's US Korean War vets in Japan novel Valhalla.

So, while Shirota's ear for dialog is good (he's been more successful as a playwright than novelist over the decades, publishing and seeing produced an adaptation of this as well as several non-adapted plays, but publishing only one other novel, Pineapple White, with a small press in 1972), the prose in the book is readable without being compelling...but it's still a fine corrective to James Michener or Hawaii Five-0 or that series' children for giving a more grounded sense of life in that place and time, even if the adorableness of certain aspects can be laid on a bit thick. As a regional novel, its fame within its native archipelago is still pretty sound, while it's perhaps a footnote in the history of American literature deserves better than the latter.

For more of today's books, please see Patti Abbott's blog (and happy birthday to her grandson, Kevin).


Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Thanks very much Todd, a real eye-opener for me. Some great detail gere, fascinating background as I've never read (or seen) anything by Shirota. By the way (off topic I know) thanks for the guidance on Harlan Ellison, as I managed to get myself THE BOOK OF ELLISON which arrived here in the UK just a few days ago after years of fruitlessly hoping I could find an affordable copy.

Todd Mason said...

Thank you, Sergio...I only wish I'd had more time, in a very busy week, to write a bit more and better about the book...and, "off-topic" or not (not really a concern in comments!), glad you were able to pick up a reasonably-priced copy of the Ellison and friends anthology.