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Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Hawaii by Mark Panek: Book Review by Don Wallace

Panek Point

Book Rips Cover Off Hawai‘i!


Calling this big fat novel Hawaii was bound to raise eyebrows. Hey, come run to the schoolyard to watch Mark Panek throw down! Pow! Right in the kisser of that other big fat novel named Hawaii, by whatsisname, the one everyone loves to put down (not literary! not local! haole! old fut!) that for better or worse (worse!) became the siren call for mainland millions to take a jumbo jet to Waikiki.

The author of two well-regarded books about sumo, Panek (not local! haole! but young! ana’UH-Hilo’professa!) shoulders his way into the ring, throwing a handful of salt over his shoulder. I edged forward in my seat. This was going to be good.

Now, James Michener’s Hawaii was not a bad book, as general midlist fiction goes–it just happened to be clumsy and patronizing and earnest. Its best moment, on the bestseller Richter Scale, was to introduce the good-sex-will-get-you-killed trope–mainland girl does it with beach boy and then they’re both nailed by a tsunami. The same trick later opens Jaws and serves as a plotline for later entire film franchises (Scary Movie!).

Panek’s sex is by hot young Japanese American professional women, in K-bars with gangsta Hawaiians and Samoans, last flings before joining “…the same I-married-a-dentist-or-attorney world where many of them were headed, cashing in on that flesh right around age 28 while it was still worth something in the Ewa Plantation Villages homeowner-and-two-kids-at-‘Iolani range.” Yes, he writes sentences like that–lots of them, all honed sharp as a Chinatown duck-shop butcher’s knife. Bam-bam-bam! He nails everyone. (Equal opportunity!)

Panek’s tsunami is money, development money. His theme is the utter corruption and democratic paralysis of Hawaii as the Great Wave finally sweeps away all objection and resistance to paving the island with second homes polka-dotted with casinos. This is not some half-hearted Occupy diatribe: His research and detail, and its delivery (important! gotta keep eyeballs on the page!), is entertaining and forceful. I kept slapping the book down and shaking my head.

The peak, literally, of the author’s vision comes when a young Japanese American fixer is taken to a private overlook, soon to be developed by an under-the-table partnership between what is obviously Turtle Bay and Envision Laie, and sees the future before him: a vast carpet of Mormon spec homes, intended for white retirees from Utah and Pacific Islander converts, one pure voting block, like the settlements that Orthodox Jews are erecting on the West Bank right now to force the Palestinians off their land permanently. Is young Sean dismayed? No. He’s panicked that he can’t get bars on his cell so he can call to make sure the deal goes down.

Now, about those parentheses and exclamation marks. As Panek declares in his intro, he’s proud to belong to the Tom Wolfe school of meticulously researched (deep tissue! no happy ending!) realistic fiction, and his details and characters (true to life! roman a clef!) are what gives Hawaii its heft and its aura of telling the One Forreal No-B.S. Truth. So am I saying this is our Bonfire of the Vanities? Yes.

But Panek also adopts Wolfe’s typographical tics. Be forewarned. There will be “Whrrr! whirr! whirr! whrrr! A-h! a-h! a-h! a-h! Ooooh-wEE! ooh-wEE! ooh-wEE!” which is a representation of the mental gear-shifting of a Professional Academic Hawaiian, Makana, as he sits in another department meeting, thinking how UH was ruined when it was “. . . overrun by California carpetbaggers who immediately added layer upon layer of administration positions for their carpetbagging friends.” That’s not Makana’s problem, though. He’s witnessed a murder, a Hawaiian-on-Samoan gang hit, payback for the book’s boldest stroke and opening gambit: the throwing of UH football games by a star player (with the coaches looking daoddaway!) which results in the heavy-betting Senate president getting in deep to the Samoan mob, which . . .

Do I need to say more? Get this book. Read it if you care at all about what really goes on in those Legislature back rooms, in the bedrooms of hot young Japanese Americans (Hello Kitty figurines! porn star moves!), in the Native Hawaiian and anti-development councils. Get it before the post-Inouye island power players figure out a way to ban it.

Mark Panek
Lo’ihi Press, 2013
Softcover, 551 pages, $16.95

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