By Andrew Hamlin
John Keeble’s novel “Yellowfish” begins in the thick
fog of San Francisco’s Chinatown. In such a fog, things disappear
and shapes begin to transform into something else.
This is an appropriate, symbolic beginning for
a story that invokes many cultures, Chinese and
otherwise, but leaves the reader with little clarification at the end.
examines the confusion of multiculturalism, but
settles only to reaffirm this perplexity rather than exploring deeper
into the subject.
The protagonist is Wesley Erks, a resident of eastern
Washington. Erks will move any kind of merchandise,
legal or otherwise, if the price is right. His
morality is reminiscent of the wild frontier of the “Old West,” where a man could rightly earn a living
at whatever he chose, so long as a sheriff didn’t catch him.
Figuratively, Erks lives in the new West. He dodges
state troopers, not sheriffs. However, his risks, and his belief in
his right to run them, are influenced from these older times.
The gap between Erks and his human cargo is significant.
By the story’s end, he’ll learn a little bit more about
the Chinese way of life, but not much.
Jui, a prominent Chinese businessman, receives
the three men. Jui outwardly courts approval, which
is hinted by his photos of elders and the ceramic
Buddha prominently displayed in his office. Privately,
however, he doesn’t live up to his public image
because when alone, he removes the Buddha’s head to tap cigar
ash down into its hollow body.
From Jui, Erks receives new instructions. Several
more young Chinese men await him in Vancouver B.C.
However, this new load of passengers includes an
important man: Ginarn Taam, the son of a recently
deceased Chinatown bigwig. Taam has plans to gain
control of his father’s
business interests. First, he has to get across
The mask represents the cross-cultural barrier
between the two men. But Taam speaks very little and Keeble spends so
much time with sudden, sometimes bloody action, that whatever is underneath
this symbolic mask is never revealed.
Supporters of “Yellowfish,” reissued since first being published
in 1980, say it isn’t your typical action book. Certainly, your
typical action novel doesn’t contain such words as “lacuna,” “adamance,” and “dealbate.” The
novel’s slice-and-dice action, awkwardly placed amid paragraphs
of metaphysical pondering, clumsily brings it down
Toward the end, Erks, a man who thought he understood what was going on, stands with one man’s torn skin in his shirt pocket and another man’s blood splattered on his shirt. He doesn’t know quite how he got to that point.
Unfortunately, the reader doesn’t either. (end)
“Yellowfish: A Novel,” is by John Keeble, published by the University of Washington Press, Seattle. $18.95.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.
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