SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI
By Naomi Hirahara
Bantam Dell Books: 290 pp., $12.00 paper
By PAULA L. WOODS, Special to The Los Angeles Times, October 24, 2004
The best Los Angeles crime fiction is distinguished by its
ability to transport readers to unfamiliar corners in our
multicultural metropolis. The house-proud black
neighborhoods sleuthed by Walter Mosley's midcentury
detective Easy Rawlins, the gay and lesbian enclaves of
Katherine V. Forrest's Kate Delafield police procedurals,
the Persian American elite and other diverse groups
investigated by John Shannon's P.I. Jack Liffey all leave
readers more knowledgeable than they started about people
seen only from a distance and lives imagined only in the
broadest of outlines.
For her first
novel, "Summer of the Big Bachi," Naomi Hirahara has chosen
as her hero another iconographic albeit little-known figure
in the Los Angeles landscape-the Japanese American gardener.
Mas Arai is a diminutive man in his late 60s with a
dwindling number of regular customers whose yards he tends
with loving care and a practiced eye, even as they look
through him and mangle his daughter's name, Mari.
By the summer of 1999 his life is bleak
— his wife, Chizuko, has died of cancer, and he's estranged
from Mari. At least Mas enjoys the companionship of other
Japanese American gardeners who hang out at Wishbone
Tanaka's lawn-mower shop in Altadena, and he has an unusual
sidekick — his 1956 Ford, whose "tough metal hide could
survive accident after accident, the blazing L.A. sun,
gunshots, and domestic strife. Unlike the aluminum-can
Japanese cars, his Ford truck was solid, reliable, and,
perhaps, most important, a friend."
The simplicity of the Altadena
gardener's life belies memories pressed down "so hard that
they lay thin and almost invisible." Mas is a survivor of
pikadon (Japanese for flash-boom), the atomic bomb that
leveled Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. The teenage Mas, who had
been sent to his family's ancestral city to study, was
trapped in Japan during World War II and became one of the
blast's 350,000 victims, and one of the 500 who returned to
their native United States.
Mas' carefully constructed existence is
upended when Shuji Nakane, a private investigator from
Hiroshima, turns up at Tanaka's lawn-mower shop, sporting
gold-tipped sunglasses and a turtleneck in 98-degree heat
and smelling of "high-tone cologne, not the familiar scent
of Old Spice that Mas splashed on special for a funeral."
Nakane is seeking Joji Haneda, who was presumed to have died
in the Hiroshima blast but who seems to have a doppelgänger
living as a nurseryman in Ventura. The reasons for Nakane's
interest in Haneda are initially unclear, but it forces Mas
to recall his horrific past and sends him on a quest to
confront Haneda before Nakane can find him.
In the process, Mas and his
trusty Ford traverse the breadth of Japanese American Los
Angeles, treating readers to snippets of the Japanese
language in addition to well-drawn scenes in Crenshaw
District homes still occupied by elderly Japanese, San
Fernando Valley ramen shops, hostess bars on Sawtelle
Boulevard that cater to Japanese businessmen, Gardena
bowling alleys and illegal card games in Little Tokyo.
Along the way,
Mas and his Ford visit the North Hollywood apartment of
Junko Kakita, the woman purported to be Haneda's mistress.
Trouble follows close on Mas' heels, resulting in a rough
encounter with an unknown assailant who steals his Ford and
warns him to stay away from Haneda and his business.
The theft stirs something in Mas, a steely
resolution born of hardship and perseverance. "It was one
thing for him to decide to stay out of somebody's business;
it was quite another for someone to steal his property to
keep his mouth shut. Mas had no desire to dredge up old
memories, but he wasn't going to let some fancy-heeled
sonafugun try and push him down."
The shock of the assault is
compounded when Mas visits a Los Angeles clinic for
Hiroshima survivors and encounters Yuki Kimura, a young
reporter who is looking for information about his
grandfather, Riki Kimura, who may have survived Hiroshima.
Mas wonders if the boy's sudden appearance is a form of
bachi (karma or retribution) for his past misdeeds. Is
Yuki's search connected to Shuji Nakane's?
to these questions, as well as the connection between Mas
and the two missing men, are revealed in skillful flashbacks
that bring the stark horror of the Hiroshima bombing to life
as Mas, Yuki and denizens of the lawn-mower shop are plunged
into deeper trouble, even murder.
Hirahara has a keen eye for the
telling detail and an assured sense of character uncommon
for a first-time novelist. Even when Mas' peregrinations and
the relationships between Haneda, Riki Kimura, his grandson
and others get a little confusing, the author's compassion
for her characters and evident love of the region where they
live and work keeps the heart of "Summer of the Big Bachi"
whirling and purring as strongly as the engine of Mas'
fans and readers of L.A. fiction will eagerly await her
characters' further adventures.