As he jumps 60 feet from the bridge of the freighter Tokachi Maru (12,000 tons, with a Savannah-bound cargo of microwave ovens), Hiro Tanaka, third cook, has a burning vision. Despised in Japan because of his mixed blood - his father was an American hippie - Hiro will swim to the Georgia shore and make a new life among the shopping malls, movie theaters and unconstraint of a society that is nothing but mixture.
As she types and broods in the Hart Crane cottage at Thanatopsis, a flossy writers' colony on Tupelo Island, Ruth Dershowitz, a doubtfully talented but usefully connected writer, has her own fervent and mixed-up vision. She wants to be the toast of the literary world, profitably published, and the permanent squeeze of her useful connection: Saxby, the son of Thanatopsis' proprietor.In his bumbling, comic and ultimately somber fashion, Hiro thinks of himself as a samurai, as portrayed in the writings of his hero, Yukio Mishima. The wandering warrior, that is; unbeholden to society, entirely self-achieved and, in case of failure, self-destroyed. In a far-fetched echo, Ruth - known to her fellow-Thanatopsians as La Dershowitz on account of her flamboyance - has a samurai touch herself; at least to the extent of being self-invented and unstoppable.
The wonderfully tangled and disruptive encounter of this pair is not so much a clash of elemental forces as of elemental misapprehensions. Boyle recounts the results in a novel that is spirited, clever and very funny.
Hiro's misery makes us ache and scratch. Instead of the shopping malls there is the blazing sun, nowhere to wash, and nothing to eat except crabs and grasshoppers. When the sun goes down, he faces "the obscene drama of the night with all its comings and goings, its little deaths and devourings, its spiders and snakes and chiggers."
These scenes alternate with Ruth up in the colony, posturing, scheming, flirting and trying to write. As we foresee, the two converge.
For the most part, "East Is East" is rather like a playful and elegantly managed puppet show. This is no defect at all; puppetry can be a high art, and Boyle has a lovely artfulness. But when the author juxtaposes the comic with the tragic, it is as if, out of sheer fondness for his creatures, he had come out on stage and embraced them. Flesh tangles with strings.- By Richard Eder (Los Angeles Times)