Review of Tokyo Sketches, by Pete Hamill

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/17/04


  A few months back a friend of mine mailed me a large box full of books he no longer wanted. Not wanting to let them molder on some old used bookstore’s shelves he felt I could get some use out of them. As I have wended my way through the piles I came upon a slim volume (160 pages) of short stories called Tokyo Sketches, by Pete Hamill. He had bought the book some years earlier while living in Japan (published by Kodansha International, 1992), & apparently had not been that impressed by it. Just seeing the name on the book led me to suspect I would think the same. Pete Hamill is best known to a native New Yorker like me as a former editor of the New York Post & New York Daily News. The cogence of those facts resides in the knowledge that writers who are primarily journalists do not make for good fictionists- think Mike Royko or Anna Quindlen, because while they are good at distilling facts down to their essence it is a quality that does not translate necessarily well into fiction, where the creative demiurge reigns supreme.

  In short, confabulation is anathema to seasoned journalists, & so engrained that most journalists cannot bifurcate their opposing writing selves. Their fiction tends to be banal, straightforward, & their narratives heavy on Joe Friday ‘Just the facts!’ approach, & light on any poetry, or depth. The archetype example of this in recent decades is another New York journalistic icon- Jimmy Breslin. Having read Hamill’s journalistic stories over the years I knew he could phrase things well, & take interesting points of view & narrative arcs, yet that was always with the backbone of the facts of real world stories. How would he fare when he had to rely on his own creativity?

  I’m delighted to say I was delighted by the collection- especially so since, before this book I had read the Collected Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald & was underwhelmed. The iconic writer’s tales were larded with cardboard characters, creaky plot machinations, & just plain old bad writing, down to the construction of sentences. Hamill, on the other hand, has crafted a collection of 13 tales about the great Japanese metropolis. Rather, about things related to Tokyo. His characters are real, the situations unique, & just when you think the story is going to turn out a trite way it goes in another direction. Yet, his tales’ ends are not deus ex machinas, nor Twilight Zone-like twists that properly belong to sci fi- they are, like life often is, abruptions in the flow- yet wholly believable.

  Let me go story-by-story & tick off its strengths;

1)      A Blues For Yukiko details a young, insecure female reporter’s meeting up with a blind, black American blues legend for an interview. Genuine kindnesses are exchanged in their brief encounter & the woman has a brief fantasy which ends the story. Yet, the fantasy is never enacted- the tale ends with its unfulfilled rapture. A lesser writer would have taken the story beyond Hamill’s closing moment with alot of preening exposition. But, any reader of breadth will appreciate that Hamill knows when to pull back. Logically, we know the reporter’s brief revery will be something that will not likely stick in her own mind years hence. The question posed is- just because something is brief &/or ultimately forgettable, are the feelings it produces any less powerful or real than those produced by traumas?

2)      The Price Of Everything is ostensibly the tale of a con man who swindles a wealthy widowed Japanese businessman by selling him a phony Picasso to impress a would-be younger paramour. The revelation of the scam takes a backseat to the revelation of human loneliness, & the fact that what a thing symbolizes to an individual is as important as what it symbolizes to the masses.

3)      The Past Is Another Country is a tale of revenge & the betrayal that led to it. The protagonists are an aging American businessman & his would-be hotshot Japanese savior. They share a past, & a woman- but not in the way most would conceive of a love triangle. The ending, on 1st blush, seems to echo many a Hollywood ending, where a good man, on the precipice of an evil act, sees the folly of his error. The difference is that Hamill does not descend into emotional swill, & the ‘redeemable villain’ has motives which are not readily discernible.

4)      After The War is a tale of star-crossed lovers & 1 of the weaker pieces in the book. Even so, the ending, where the lovers reconcile, is almost a bow to the reality of human relationships, not the crescendo of a Hollywood film. Given the tritest of set ups Hamill shows that a superior writing can still filigree depth of character into his tale.

5)      The Opponent is not the best tale in the book, but a good 1, & the piece that most shows off Hamill’s chops. This tale of the redemption of a down & out pug boxer begs the oldest of journalist-cum-Great American Novelist clichés. There are corrupt promoters, an up & comer opponent, a fix, & organized criminals. But, this tale is set in Japan, & the ending shows why.

6)      The 48th Ronin is the tale of an expatriate American holdover from the post-World War 2 occupation of Japan. He has slowly cut himself off from his world, both in Japan & America. He is being harried by the soulless landlord son of a now-dead friend. Although it seemingly has a melodramatic end, it works, because it comes on the end of the ‘smallest’ story in the book, showing that even those odd little folk in the corner are capable of the extremities of the human rush.

7)      The Blue Stone is a tale of doomed love, but very affecting. The title is the memento mori of that love & the ending at 1st seems trite, until 1 rereads the tale & finds what seems to be real may not be.

8)      Samurai is even a better tale about love & fantasy. An American teenager becomes obsessed with Japan, at least that he’s seen in Japanese films. He builds up a fantasy image for himself, then loses his virginity to an older Japanese exchange student. Following the lead of a famed Japanese actor’s character, he pursues his Lady Love across the Pacific, swelled on that only youth can suckle, to find out that what he thought was real was not, & reality can be too much.

9)      Running For Home follows the last season of a career of a washed up American baseball player coming to grips with that reality. The tale also is about the import of father figures, & the need for a realistic view of fathers. It is only when the fading star realizes what he thought was real is not that his own life can come into focus. The best thing about this tale is that these points flow naturally out of the characters & their conflicts- this is no moral!

10)  The Magic Word is probably the worst piece in the book- but by its high standards still good. It is the overwrought tale of the dangers of hero worship. The ending, in a sense, is a lonely young male equivalent to the end in The 48th Ronin, & therefore lacks the visceral impact. Still, the sheer poesy of the sentence construction lifts this beyond what a mere hack would do.

11)  It’s Only Rock And Roll is another tale of love gone awry- a Madonna-like spoiled American singing superstar feels her life is hollow, & takes a Japanese reporter as a lover. She has a breakdown when he clashed with a band member she’s bedded. The ending has the ring of truth to it, as the reporter shows how truly mature people react to the vagaries of immature lovers.

12)  Missing In Action is a truly great short story, about 2 American Vietnam veterans who meet up in a Tokyo bar decades after the war. Both have deep psychic wounds from the war, & intractable personal enmity. Their final clash seems what may be expected, but how it plays out subverts every expectation that a reader drags in from Hollywood & hard-boiled fiction. The backdrop of Vietnam dovetails perfectly with the denouement.

13)  Happy New Year is another love tale, but 1 involving divorce, motivations, & that in the interstice between. It is the longest story in the book & the ‘protagonist’ is a classic medi-hero, not a hero, nor an anti-hero. The final moments of this story, & it’s final word, are a perfect summation of the book.

  What makes the book & its tales so good is how they unfold. The little details- their descriptions, & usage within- separate Hamill from hack tale tellers. The way he so realistically describes Tokyo- sans mythology- reveals human bonds in ways that PC Elitist writing utterly fails to. Hamill does not ram these similarities down the readers’ throats. Notably, most of the similarities are in the negative vein. The prose is poetic, but never floral. There are no wasted sentences, nor descriptions. Having only read his journalism & this book I wonder how much of this book’s style owes to its subject matter. Hamill has a pitch-perfect sense of the length of his tales, where to make breaks in the narrative, & when to end the stories, always leaving the reader wondering what happened next in these characters’ lives. Few writers have that- even supposed greats like Fitzgerald could learn that lesson.

  Would-be fictionists in creative writing classes should be forced to read these tales for their economy, subversion of the expected, & the power of detail, rather than the pabulum that is spewn out now, which wins award after award, yet leave nary a fraction of the emotional impact of these tales. Having recently completed a 4 book series of memoirs on growing up in New York I feared that there may have been a large gap between the mid-20th Century’s noted chroniclers of New York’s streets & my tales. Luckily, Pete Hamill, if this book’s an indication of his non-journalistic prowess, is more than an able bridge between the 2- he’s a possible Master.

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