Review: Island Song
Alan Chin's first novel, Island Song, (Zumaya Publications, 2008) is competently written, which puts it above Robert Ludlum and Cornell Woolrich junk. It seems a little too well written to fit in the (GLBT) trash-romance sub-genre where its publishers think it belongs. Here’s their blurb:
Two years after the death of his lover, Garrett Davidson sits in a Hawaiian beach shack, gazing out over the vast, empty Pacific. He has nothing left. Despair has robbed him of his elegant home, his lucrative job and his sanity. The single thread holding him to reality is the story he has come to this shack to write: Marc's story, the story of his lost love.
Then Songoree breezes into his life.
Songoree, a Hawaiian surfer and Garrett's new cook, is not gay, but he can't help being captivated by Garrett. He has always been attracted to broken things, like the crane with a broken wing he once mended and cared for. He is drawn to anything that reminds him of the broken image he has of himself. When he attempts to heal Garrett's spirit they become entwined in an extraordinary relationship.
The stakes are raised when Songoree's grandfather, a venerable Hawaiian kahuna, frees Garrett's mind from anguish by using ancient shamanic methods to induce altered states of awareness. Garrett and Songoree struggle to transcend their differences in age, race and life experiences. They soon discover that some of the islanders will stop at nothing to destroy their unique bond, while Songoree's grandfather is hell-bent on bringing them together to fulfill an ancient Polynesian prophesy. A clash of wills erupts between grandfather, grandson and hostile islanders, with Garrett caught in the middle fighting for his life and plunging headlong to a moment that will brutally test the boundaries of the human spirit.
As a movie it makes total sense: attractive main characters, spectacular settings, shark attacks, frenzied luaus, fire walking (!), and plenty of mano-a-mano violence. Oh did I mention flashbacks to gay sex scenes.
So, what is 275-page Island Song after we subtract the 102-page screenplay? Description. Lots and lots of description. Lots of colors and smells e.g. there are many verbs specifying exactly how particular smells combine.
Lots of meal menus. Lots of physical sensations.
None of the description seems to have any purpose, no particular meaning. The description of sunlight sifting through green fronds is no more or less important than the description of the protagonist’s nervous system as he walks on burning coals.
Nothing makes the reader sympathize or identify with the main characters, Barrett Davidson, an ex-Navy Seal white gay guy from San Francisco, and Songeree (no last name) a Hawaiian youth who is heir to a fading shamanic tradition.
Does the white guy have an interesting story? Not really. Does he ever have an interesting thought? If so, they’re not recorded in this novel. Does he have any interesting aspirations? No. Does he look good in a tuxedo in the flashback to his now dead boyfriend’s art opening? He looks great.
And so does Songeree. Besides being a dutiful student of his shaman-grandfather, Song is a pillar of his family. He’s a great hula dancer who loves to strip down to his loincloth and wriggle for an audience. Plus, he’s a surfer who hangs with his regular-guy small village contemporaries (who don’t like the idea that some rich haole foj wants to fuck their pretty-boy compadre).
Song is not only beautiful, and servile, he has (supposed) deep understanding which he shares with Garrett. There’s nothing particularly interesting about the mystical knowledge Song has inherited, at least not as reported in the novel, except it seems to be heavy on warrior-spirit stuff, Earnest Hemingway stuff, for instance the fire walking.
So, Chin gives us nothing in the religion to root for.
The eventual mating of Garrett and Song is opposed (violently – Chin’s writing comes alive in the Hollywood-perfect fistfight scenes) by the local youth-trash, so I guess we’re rooting for the gay guys.
The gay guys win. Plus, the book Garrett writes to promote Grandfather’s shamanic delusions (wisdom) becomes the hottest thing since Dianetics.
And they all live happily ever after, in their alternate versions of Architecture Digest and Gourmet magazine, all simple yet elegant.
Do we care? Not at all. And that seems to be the (extremely) subtle point. In a world devoid of meaning, does it really matter who is and isn’t successful? Do we care which Roman emperors were gay?
The satire is so deadpan it might be missed entirely. For instance, in the dénouement, Song and Garrett take a rich guy on a fishing daytrip (that’s their new business) and after the rich guy’s three hour aneurism-popping (almost) fight with a magnificent sailfish, Song cuts the fish loose. He explains to the irate rich guy that in the struggle he and the fish became one, that the rich guy actually experienced love with the fish.
This completely assuages the rich guy and seems to give him some deep insight or peace of mind or something. This crap supposedly exemplifies the religion that is taking the world, and the island, by storm: you can love a fish by making it fight for its life.
Alan Chin gives us only two little hints that he doesn’t necessarily endorse the happy ending.
The book begins with a quotation from Buddhist scripture about happiness and geography, cautioning against the thought that one place is happier than another.
Then, at the end of the fishing trip day, the book ends with Garrett writing in his journal:
But he has a nagging feeling there was something frightening about today. He searches his feeling the way Songoree taught him to do, but he can’t quite see it. He has the vague feeling it has to do with life being out of control, and he’s reminded of the poem Grandfather once quoted, the one about the falling leaf showing front then showing back.
The hell with it, he decides.
There is something frightening about every day. Sleep well and pick up the rhythm of your life in the morning, make love to your man again, go to town and pickup your son, and do what you can to make them as happy as they were today.
Coming soon (I predict) to a theater near you. It could even spark a spate of Gay-Buddhist-vigilante movies.