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January 04, 2006

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Publication Date: Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Growing up in Hawaii Growing up in Hawaii (January 04, 2006)

Local writer spins some island stories in his novel "Punahou Blues" by Kirby Wright; Lemon Shark Press; 231 pp.; $14.95

by Jennifer Dietz Berry

Palo Alto Weekly readers first got to know Palo Alto author Kirby Wright when he took second place in the newspaper's 1999 short-story contest with his piece, "Houdini." Readers who remember Wright's sad and disturbing tale of a World War II veteran who leaves his son tied up in the backyard overnight will be pleased to know that these same characters make a return appearance in his first full-length book of fiction, "Punahou Blues." It was released in 2005 by the small independent publisher, Lemon Shark Press.

"Punahou Blues" tells the story of a boy growing up in Hawaii in the 1960s and 1970s. Although the book is subtitled "A Hawaiian Novel," it reads more like a collection of short stories revolving around the character of Jeffrey Gill. Most of the pieces focus on traditional boyhood rites of passages: fights with parents, getting into mischief with his brother, being picked on riding the school bus home, having a crush on the popular girl, victories in the boxing ring and on the basketball court, and a less-than-perfect prom night.

But the infusion of Hawaiian culture and language is a nice twist, and Wright does a good job of depicting the racial tensions between haoles (whites) and the indigenous Hawaiians, and of illustrating the challenge for characters like Jeffrey who as the product of mixed-race marriages must try to bridge the two cultures and overcome prejudice from both camps. The early stories in the book are by far the most interesting. In these, Wright is able to simply and honestly render the experiences of a small boy growing up while also alluding to the larger issues impacting his family and their relationships with one another. "The Ring," the first story in the book, introduces the reader to Jeffrey's mother, a reluctant housewife who can insist that her sons are old enough to serve themselves breakfast but still find herself playing waitress to her husband, cooking his eggs and pouring his coffee and never able to sit down with the family to enjoy a meal. It becomes clear that Jeffrey's mother is resentful about being stuck in a provincial, isolated existence on the islands, and is suffering lingering regrets over having given up her life on the mainland, where she was crowned "Miss Massachusetts" and had dreamed of becoming a Broadway actress. Hints of her unhappiness crop up in strange and funny ways, such as when she tries to force her extremely unwilling sons into taking dance lessons at the Arthur Murray studio only to see them kicked out before the first lesson has ended. Jeffrey's father is also a complex character. A decorated war veteran, his sons both admire him and are terrified by him. When they nervously broach the subject of the war with him, they are pleasantly surprised to find that he opens up, telling them war stories and taking them out to the garage to see his old uniform, still darkened with the blood of a Japanese soldier. But what interests the boys still more is the diamond-encrusted wedding ring they find among the military paraphernalia, a ring that had once belonged to their father's grandmother. When the boys ask why it hasn't been given to their mother, their father carefully dodges the question. Later, when Jeffrey comes across the ring tucked away in his parents' medicine cabinet, he hears the ring talking to him, telling him to take it, and almost against his will, he begins a long process of prying loose the diamonds, day after day, and taking them with him into the bathtub to watch them sparkle underwater. Of course it isn't long before Jeffrey's father notices the mangled ring and missing diamonds and goes on a rampage to find out who's responsible. Jeffrey, who is terrified of facing his father's wrath, stands by as their Filipino maid is accused of stealing the diamonds and is eventually fired for her supposed crime. Ultimately it is Jeffrey's grandmother who intervenes to set things right. The grandmother is by far the most interesting character in the book-the kind of woman who will pull over at the side of the road to send her grandsons running out into the fields to steal pineapples, and who makes no bones about not liking their mother, whom she frequently refers to as "yoa big horse mutha." The grandmother is the only one who suspects that her grandsons may have had a hand in the disappearance of the diamonds. Late at night, Jeffrey hears her, standing out on the porch calling to her mother's spirit to tell her who destroyed the ring. She comes back inside and gives the boys the third-degree, forcing them to admit that they've both been stealing diamonds out of the ring. They survive the beating from their father, and yet the more they talk about it, the more they are convinced that it was their great grandmother's spirit, manipulating them from beyond the grave, forcing them to destroy the ring so their haole mother couldn't get her hands on it. The story is funny and sad and strangely haunting -- and after reading it along with the story that follows -- it seems as if Wright is in the process of unfolding an intricate and original family history. In "Pakalaki Memories" we learn that the grandmother's disappointment with her son for marrying a white woman is more complicated than it first appears. It turns out she herself had fallen in love with a blonde Englishman who abandoned her once she became pregnant, and yet decades later, she still keeps his photograph on her mantel, hoping for his return. Wright could easily have built a whole novel around the relationships and conflicts that cut across the generations of this family. But instead, most of these characters-the mother, the father and the grandmother-are given great potential only to be forgotten after the first few stories. The remainder of the book offers a series of stories about fairly standard exploits of a typical school-age kid. The works continue to entertain, and the writing is quick, simple and clear. But it is unfortunate that most of the later chapters stay narrowly focused on Jeffrey's personal triumphs and disappointments, while opportunities to mine the depths and contradictions that make up this family's history are missed.

Jennifer Deitz Berry is a freelance contributor to the Palo Alto Weekly. She can be reached at jenberry2@aol.com.





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