Thursday, December 6, 2012
*The Heat of the Sun, by David Rain
Henry Holt, 2012
from the publisher -- thank you!
Australian author David Rain adds a rather lengthy postscript to the story of Puccini's Madame Butterfly with this novel, in which his subject is the little boy taken away from Nagasaki by Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton and his wife Kate after the boy's mother's suicide. The Heat of the Sun is an ambitious book, one which covers the lives of both the narrator, Woodley Sharpless, and the boy in question, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton II (aka Trouble -- "dolore," so named by his real mother Cho Cho san in the opera). Starting with their boarding school days in Vermont, Rain moves his characters through the Roaring 20s, the Great Depression, World War II and the dropping of the bomb, then brings the story to a close in the later years of their lives. The novel examines how events from the past can create lasting and echoing repercussions for everyone involved, both personally and peripherally, here lasting throughout most of a century. It is also a story about identity, love, honor, friendship and the ties that bind people together.
As the novel opens Sharpless reflects on the idea of scandals, saying that most of the time they tend to fade into oblivion in our "age of amnesia," but there is one that will probably never die -- The Pinkerton Affair. Several books and even a movie keep this cause célèbre looming large in the public psyche -- after all, Pinkerton Sr. could have been the President of the United States. Woodley feels that he has to write his own story, one that will not appear until after his death -- "the saddest story I know" -- beginning with his introduction to Trouble, ending decades later with the end of his dealings with the Pinkerton family. He touts himself as a well-placed bystander on hand to watch the saga unfold; you must judge for yourself whether or not he's a reliable narrator.
Without getting too much into the plot here, Trouble is at the very heart of this novel, and as a boy, Sharpless recognized that "Trouble was dangerous. He had in him an excitability that had to go to extremes," which made Sharpless "want to go with him." Woodley is one of those kids who just kind of lay low, very dependent on his "ashplant" after a childhood accident left him with a bad leg. Some time later, in the heyday of the Roaring 20s, Trouble and Woodley cross paths again in New York, where Sharpless is invited to tea and is introduced to Trouble's parents. At that meeting, some kind of tacit, unspoken agreement is reached that Sharpless will be responsible for keeping an eye on their son. Trouble lives a risky life, never happy in one place, seemingly inhibition free. But inwardly he's hiding something -- he reveals to Sharpless that he's always sensed something wrong and that sometimes things like "a smell, a texture, a rustle of fabric" offer memories of another life he believes he was "stolen from" at an early age. The truth comes out during a rather grotesque "Blood Red Ball," a highly-anticipated, masked society affair given by globetrotting Japanese Prince Yamadori; but even knowing the truth, Woodley is unable to fully comprehend Trouble's inner anguish, a condition that will last as long as their friendship. As it happens, the Ball becomes a turning point that will ultimately become an epic life changer for everyone falling within the orbit of the Pinkerton family -- and beyond.
The Heat of the Sun thematically tackles some pretty heavy topics, including American imperialist ambitions, politics, power and influence, the human toll of war and others. Rain's writing throughout the first two acts is pretty much seamless with the best occurring during the two boys' prep-school days -- if you read carefully, there's a lot there that sort of acts as a foretelling of what is yet to come for these two. As the novel moves into the second half of the book, there is also a great section where Yamidori discusses the "end of the golden world," the last days of the Samurai era and life as the Japanese once understood it as American ships made their way into Edo Bay, leading Japan eventually to "become America." I will say that my enthusiasm for this scene was tempered by an unnecessary act of violence in a Japanese bath, a symbolic act that imho really didn't need to be there. Rain adds some excellent little touches as well -- a copy of Pierre Loti's Madame Chrysanthème (a precursor of sorts to Puccini's opera) laying on the bookcase by a bed, someone softly whistling a tune from a Puccini opera, etc. There is also a lot of symbolism here that for the most part I felt worked well -- Sharpless and his "ashplant," (the walking stick/crutch he relies on heavily), Telemachus (the son estranged from his father), and Imogen/Fidele's funeral song from Shakespeare's Cymbeline, from which the novel gets its name (see the video below), but throwing in Oedipal blindness was a little over the top and could have been left out entirely. There is also a tendency for unevenness in the novel's overall tone: the beginning is so well written and highly realistic, but in between there is a tendency to verge here and there into the melodrama zone, and sometimes even into the silly (an entire outdoor amphitheater of servicemen involved in a brawl?) which together diminish the novel's overall effect.
I liked this book, didn't love it, but I do I think David Rain is an author to watch in the future. The premise is new and fresh, the scope is ambitious and I love how the book is structured. If you would like the opinion of someone who absolutely loved this novel, Liam at The Book Boy has written an absolutely glowing review. Recommended.