Saturday, September 26, 2015

FFB: PUNAHOU BLUES by Kirby Wright (Lemon Shark Press 2005)...another thought.

Despite the fact that I'm about as close to the ideal audience for this novel as it could have, since I, like Wright, attended Punahou Academy in Honolulu in the 1970s (though I began sophomore year there in 1979, rather than attending as he did in the early '70s), and even came to Hawaii with my family from the Boston suburbs of New Hampshire (the mother of the protagonist has strong family ties back in her hometown, the Hub), I was disappointed. It's not ill-written so much as uninspired; unusually large chunks of the novel are devoted to recounting sports-related adventures of the young Jeff, whom we follow from late elementary school at the more overtly Christian Star of the Sea to his matriculation at Punahou for 7th Grade and passage through to high-school graduation, but Wright won't make anyone forget about William Campbell Gault nor Michael Shaara in these passages; they do demonstrate more engagement than much of the the rest of the book does, particularly the oddly muddled portrait of Jeff's borderline-abusive father, who is initially described as hapa-haole (literally "half-stranger" but in most contexts in the Islands meaning half-pale Caucasian, often half Asian or more often originally half-Hawaiian) and yet later his father is apparently only 1/8th Hawaiian; his ancestry is only a small part of what's out of focus about him, and the protagonist's mother also seems rather schematic, even more than either might actually be to a not terribly bright boy like Jeff. Wright drops a Whole Lot of Hawaiian words into his dialog, but relatively little of the common creole of Hawaiian Pidgin, so while people are always referring (believably) to makai (in the direction of the ocean) and mauka (in the direction of the mountains in the center of Oahu) and less common borrowed words, only some are likely to drop in much more than "da kine" (the Hawaiian Pidgin equivalent of "whatsits" or "you know, that thing"--from  "the [or that] kind of thing"--often used to emphasize the next adjective or noun, as in "da kine moke"--where "moke" or "moak" are somewhat oddly preserved from early 20th Century rather common US slang for "tough guy"; "da kine moke" = "really tough guy"--Brits and Aussies use or have used the term for donkeys and beat-down horses, respectively, apparently) , and hardly anyone says "brah" (as in "bruddah" or brother/hey, you) or the odd bit such as "garans ballbearins" ("I swear" or "It's a lock/sure thing" after "guaranteed ball-bearings" originally). But, then, maybe Wright knew a lot of people who never said too much in Pidgin, and he does provide a useful glossary for those Hawaiian words that might not be utterly clear in context (I haven't read nor heard "akamai"--smart--for a long while). Weirder by me, and I'll definitely grant this might be more in tune with the times it's set in, since I wasn't there in those years, but was there very soon after (I recognize both at least two names of teachers Wright thanks in acknowledgements and the portraits of at least two faculty as being based on unfortunate people I remember as well), is that Jeff is continually obsessed only with blonde girls in his grades, till he finally discovers in his repressed, rather half-assed way that he can as well be attracted to a Korean-American girl by the last weeks of his last semester. Entirely too much of the book feels like an attempt at post-minimalist resetting of Dobie Gillis in a Honolulu context, and as such, it's rather unengaging...but readable. The first two chapters were first published in Chaminade Literary Review, the little magazine of the Catholic university on Oahu, and that doesn't surprise me...it's a reasonably good portrait, if spartan, of Oahu and bits of Molokai in its period...but it's not what it could be, and that's a pity.

And while the last day of the school year might well've been "Kill A Haole Day" in the early '70s, it was "Kill Haole Day" in the latter '70s and early '80s--articles the first things to be streamlined. Which was sad, but as a relatively big guy at Punahou, not something I had to worry too much about. (Pale Caucs particularly in the public schools likely to get roughed up a bit, not so much killed, by da kine mokes.) I was mostly more about laughing at seniors who tried to "discipline" me for eating in the Senior Dining Room or sitting on the Senior Bench with friends...which I barely recall doing as an actual senior. The Kangaroo Court nearly everyone on campus thought was just the greatest fun wasn't quite The Chocolate War-level insane, but rather too far along that spectrum for my taste. How better to get one ready for Skull and Bones, though?

For mostly more well-loved books this week, please see Patti Abbott's blog.

6 comments:

Fred Zackel said...

Blatant self-promotion. FYI: "Murder in Waikiki" Kindle Edition ...

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Sorry it wasn't better for you Todd - that would have been an amazing close fit - alternately, one could argue you are the one that would be most likely to see the faults. There you go, with great power comes great responsibility ...

Todd Mason said...

With great familiarity comes great ability to detect nonsense, to be sure. It was the case that I found a fair amount more in common with Barry Obama's memoirs of living in Honolulu in the years just before I did...not least the record store in Ala Moana Center that had the extensive listening booths, where both of us were checking out a lot of jazz albums ca. 1979. I wonder how that store flourished with the huge Odyssey Records just outside the mall, which went belly up in '79 only to have Tower Records take over the space. I certainly dropped a Lot more money at Tower, since they were selling the older "catalog" CBS and WEA among some other records at (infrequently, briefly) $2.98 and (consistently) $3.98 a throw. Vox and Bach Guild classical items likewise. Etc.

And as someone whose first great friend was a native nation girl in Alaska, whose mother to 4yo me was utterly beautiful, I cannot begin to imagine not ever being attracted to non-pale Caucasians as a kid at Punahou or in the islands as a whole. Much less restricting one's self to blondes among them. Imprinting will out, I suppose.

Kirby Wright said...

You may want to check out some of my plays, which are based on my forthcoming memoir. My first play was performed at the Secret Theatre in NYC in Feb. 2016, as well as in Honolulu in April 2016. I will be lecturing about playwriting and creative nonfiction in Sweden & Finland this Fall 2016. I represented Hawaii @ the International Writers Conference in Hong Kong, where I lectured with Pulitzer winner Gary Snyder.

Kirby Wright said...

First Place HONOLULU WEEKLY: http://honoluluweekly.com/cover/2012/12/first-place-the-queen-of-moloka‘i/

Where's your work?

Todd Mason said...

My work is sparse and scattered...a story in Algis Budrys's magazine TOMORROW in 1994, which Ellen Datlow was kind enough to put on the recommended reading long-list in the back of the 1995 edition of THE YEAR'S BEST FANTASY AND HORROR...a story in Claude Lalumiere's now vanished webzine LOST PAGES that he suggested was the best thing he'd published...a vignette in Patricia Abbott and Steve Weddle's anthology DISCOUNT NOIR that was too-kindly hailed by a few...a few published haiku...the essay on Joyce Carol Oates in Richard Bleiler's SUPERNATURAL FICTION WRITERS, Second Edition (Scribner's, 2002)...articles in THE PROGRESSIVE, SOCIAL ANARCHISM, FACTSHEET FIVE, MAXIMUM ROCKNROLL, and in various campus and "alternate press" papers...a piece I did for PROFANE EXISTENCE was quoted extensively in a PhD thesis that was later published, but I've forgotten the good doctor's name...in 1983, I was probably the only frosh in its history to be named editor of HAWAI'I REVIEW. Lots of scraps around elsewhere. I take it this was a challenge, or did I misunderstand a polite inquiry? Hey, you're getting to travel. I'll see if I can find your plays eventually...I really did hope to like your novel better than I did.