If this agile, alert satirical novel ends up literally bogged down (the bog in question is the Okefenokee Swamp of Georgia), that’s only after it has successfully drained a pestilential figurative swamp: a treacherous, envy- ridden writers’ colony, red in tooth and claw. At his best — most of the stories in If the River Was Whiskey (1989), for instance — T. Coraghessan Boyle has a command of the comedy of effrontery that recalls Evelyn Waugh. He favors abrupt, overbearing characters and abrupt, understated ironies, and he likes to throw innocents in among the wolves, too.
In East Is East Boyle’s innocent hero is Hiro Tanaka, the 20-year-old result of a casual liaison between an American hippie and a Kyoto bar girl. Raised by old-fashioned Japanese grandparents after his disgraced mother’s suicide, Hiro is subject, as part foreigner, to relentless mockery. He reacts by turning more Japanese than his tormentors, despising their modern mercantile ethic and making a stern cult of the samurai, in the manner of his hero, the writer Yukio Mishima. When he jumps ship off the coast of Georgia, the stage is set for a comedy of cultural cross-purposes. The ultra-Japanese half-American washes up half-drowned on Tupelo Island and blunders upon a retreat for writers and artists.
The retreat is done as a comic set piece. Dense with rancor, intrigue, and morbidity (Thanatopsis, it’s called, and the cabins where writers work are named after famous literary suicides), the place harbors specimens like Ruth Dershowitz, a chronically blocked young writer with four published stories to her name. It is her cabin (”Hart Crane”) that Tanaka enters with the stealth of a wild animal, taking some lunches left for her. Gradually the two develop a delicate, almost wordless relationship. She feeds him, clothes him, coaxes him, even sleeps with him once. She also uses him as material for a short story and finally helps send him to his dismal fate, which is to be hunted down by immigration agents in the great swamp on the mainland.
In Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, the Brazilian jungle in which honorable innocent Tony Last gets lost is the mirror of a social jungle: the moral wilderness of upper-class London that drives him there. Here is Boyle’s Georgia jungle, in his best, ornate, comic prose: ”Vast and primeval, unfathomable, unconquerable, bastion of rattlesnake, cottonmouth and leech, mother of vegetation, father of mosquito, soul of silt, the Okefenokee is the swamp archetypal, the swamp of legend, of racial memory, of Hollywood.” Like Waugh’s hero, Tanaka is an honorable innocent, and the novel takes us deep into his perplexed consciousness to reveal his loneliness, nostalgia, desperate cunning, his confused picture of Americans as undisciplined and dangerous and America as hospitable and tolerant. But Boyle is less successful than Waugh in integrating satirical comedy and seriousness. The counterpoint between the muddled idealism of Tanaka and the grasping malice of the American writers, who are bent on spiritual suicide, seems forced and discordant. And Ruth Dershowitz is too frail a character to bridge the chasm between the two- dimensional writers and the three-dimensional ordeal of the sympathetic Tanaka. By the time it gets to its ultimate swamp, the novel has lost its footing. B