Saturday, October 3, 2015

Book Review 354: Tweakerville

TWEAKERVILLE: Life and Death in Hawaii’s Ice World, by Alexei Melnick. 262 pages. Mutual paperback, $15.95

It is uncommon for a didactic novel to also be a good novel, but Alexei Melnick has done it with “Tweakerville,” which can be read from several points of view and works in all of them.

We know it is didactic because Melnick ends the book with a Q & A about why he wrote it and how the characters can be critiqued and understood. I generally avoid didactic novels and also novels set in Hawaii with drugs as the theme. In the first case, I hate sermons; and in the second, the plots and authors are usually lame and lazy.

I read this one because of a positive blurb by Chris McKinney, who wrote a fine novel about Hawaii’s underclass, “The Tattoo.”

“Tweakerville” can be read as a tragedy in the sense that Aristotle defined it: a character makes a decision that is blameless in itself but brings disaster to everyone around him.

In this case, Jesse, a runner for a crystal meth dealer, answers a ringing cell phone. It is an automatic, thoughtless gesture; but the phone belonged to a young girl who overdosed at a party the night before. Jesse has just dug a hole to dispose of her body.

(One of the many threads of contrast in the novel is the honest dealer vs. the dishonest dealer. Apparently the dead girl had bought low-quality ice (batu, clear) from the dishonest dealer. However, honest dealers like Jesse and his mentor Robby don’t do any better than the bad ones.)

Or “Tweakerville” can be read as a noir crime novel. Jesse is the young acolyte -- 17 when we meet him -- aiming to gain respect and money by serving an established hoodlum.

 In this reading, the novel is as pitiless and violent as, say, Hubert Selby Jr.’s “Last Exit to Brooklyn.”

The best reading is as a coming of age novel. If “Tweakerville” has a long life among readers, I suspect it will be as a young adult novel, although it was not written as one. Its profanity would have precluded its publication even for adults two generations ago, but young adults read sterner stuff these days.

In addition to Jesse’s quest for adulthood, there is a love story, with Kapika, also 17 when we meet her. She is from a somewhat more privileged social class than Jesse (but only somewhat), but this is no Gatsby yearning for Daisy romance. Jesse and Kapika are among the more cynical young romantics of literature.

(I have little to criticize in this book, but for a novel meant to be realistic, there is a serious goof in the meeting scene of Jesse and Kapika. Jesse is trying to buy beer [unusually for him; he usually boosts it] and Kapika the clerk demands identification. The problem is that in Hawaii, the seller as well as the buyer has to be of age; 17-year-old Kapika would not be allowed to sell beer.)

Many betrayals and murders later, the novel ends back at the dead girl’s grave. Going clean, as dealer Robby does, does not preserve you. Being a loving family guy, like Vili, Jesse’s most admired friend, does not preserve you. Being a stand-up guy, as Jesse is, does not preserve you.

Smokable meth -- or as Jesse calls it, clear -- dominates all. “Next thing you know had seven cop cars up the road. All for one tweaked out love sick butchie.  Clear is like that for some guys. No fear or pain, no tomorrow, just love and rage right now.”

Melnick has chosen to write the novel in the first person. Jesse speaks what I call Bamboo Ridge creole (because it originated in the literary magazine Bamboo Ridge), a printed form of pidgen that is not like any pidgen you hear but is serviceable enough. Kapika’s language is slightly less pidgen-y, and her tone is also slightly less effective.

Melnick is a born-and-raised, and his local color touches are authentic and nuanced, which is something outsiders writing fiction set in Hawaii never achieve. Locals will understand why Jesse’s last name is Gomes: Potagees (Portuguese) are stereotyped in the islands as loquacious, but the stereotype is valid often enough; only a Potagee would have told this long story. The other locals are, typically, economical of speech.

Once or twice, Melnick oversells the contrasts. Jesse is a dropout; he has an older sister who did well in school. That her school was Punahou (Barack Obama’s high school) is not impossible for a Potagee family headed by a tugboat captain but slightly surprising.

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