Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000-02, Madagascar 2002-03)
OREGON WRITER TIMOTHY SCHELL’s new novel The Memoir of Jake Weedsong is a meditative book, complex in its construction. A finalist for the AWP Award for the Novel, the story explores bigotry and forgiveness in the Pacific Northwest, where a mixed-race couple is attacked by three young skinheads as they walk through the Parks Block near Portland State University. In court during the skinheads’ sentencing, the eponymous victim’s Japanese wife asks the judge not to send the young men to prison, but rather to a traditional dinner at her home, in which they will be required to wear kimonos. Surrounding this central story is Weedsong’s work on a memoir of his years as an English teacher in an often xenophobic Japan.
For a slender novel — 160 pages — Weedsong offers a rich and interesting array of characters, each with foibles that leave them less than innocent in a world that cannot be painted in shades of black and white. Weedsong himself, while introspective and thoughtful, is an exile from the university after throwing a glass of beer in a confrontational student’s face. His wife, Estuko, while mature and kind, has her own motivations in marrying a gaijin and leaving a Japan she clearly found stifling. Her conservative parents, who come for a visit and share the eventual meal with the skinheads, struggle to understand their daughter’s rejection of her upbringing, while Weedsong’s friend, Gunnar Hoagart, has such profound insecurities that he needs constant affirmation, even though he’s Oregon’s Poet Laureate.
In its central plotting and racial themes, the novel bears clear allegiance to one of the best books written this century, J.M. Coetzee’s Nobel-winning Disgrace. That novel, set in post-apartheid South Africa, also features a “disgraced” academic mired in a writing project who’s forced to confront racial hatred. Slender like Weedsong, Disgrace is as filled with poetic allusions and emotive renderings of the natural world as Schell’s book. Indeed, one of the main — if subtle — motifs of both novels is man’s relationship to animals, dogs in particular, and both turn on plot points of extreme animal cruelty.
I won’t offer any spoilers here, but it’s safe to say that as the dinner appointment with the skinheads approaches, tensions mount on the Weedsong’s rural vineyard. Jake’s hunting shotguns are deployed in defensive positions around the house as unknown parties leave a sign nearby warning the family against miscegenation. There’s much at stake for Jake. Aside from the occasional conflict the situation puts him in with his beloved Estuko, the couple’s beautiful college-age daughter, Elin, will soon be coming home. The on-going harassment suggests that not everyone in this world thinks a shared meal will easily solve racial hatred. With so many guns being brandished in a literary novel, Chekhov’s admonishment, “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it,” makes it apparent that one of these players eventually must be shot.
Schell excels at a number of things other writers will notice. His landscapes are calligraphic in their brushstrokes; he has a good ear for humor; he writes with economy and color about hunting; and he’s superb at sumptuously rendering food on the page. More than anything else, however, Schell manages to weave a back story — that of Weedsong’s memoir of his long ago life in Japan — with the now so seamlessly that the transitions between the two periods are never jarring. How he’s done this I have yet to precisely figure out; perhaps it’s because, to use film terminology, these are “smash cuts” set off only by line breaks. Often Schell has us witnessing a sunrise from the top of Mount Fuji with Jake and Estuko twenty years ago, then a space break, and it’s not long before we’re out with Jake and his dog walking alongside a pond in the present. It’s not that other writers don’t do this, but few attempt to construct a whole novel this way. Flashback, in most writers’ hands, is usually a quick off-ramp for the reader, an irreparable fracturing of the narrative dream. But Schell manufactures a fine work of art out of it. In this way, he seems to be saying that not only does the past beget the present, but with the racism Jake experiences in Japan balancing the racial attack in Portland, that the past and present are as mutually illuminating as they are indivisible.
Schell’s often nifty with the metaphor. Take at look at this passage from the meal after Estuko’s stuffy parents arrive, which also offers a fleeting glimpse of his deftness with food:
The flank steak had been marinated in a brine of garlic, mirin, soy sauce and apple juice, and I barbecued it just three minutes on each side . . . we drank a bottle of Pinot noir from two years ago, and even her father had a glass . . . We finished eating an hour ago and now the four of us are in the hot tub on the patio and the steam rises into the cold January night so that I feel like the four of us are in a witch’s caldron being slowly stewed beneath the glimmering stars.
Who hasn’t felt they’ve been stewing in a witch’s caldron while spending time with in-laws? But Schell is the writer to have articulated it that way. Another good metaphor, which also solves the writer’s ever-troubling problem of how to seat characters at a table without bogging down into stage directions, is in this introduction to the long-awaited meal with the skinheads:
Mother directs each boy to his seat . . . Strangely, I feel like this is the last supper and someone will be betrayed: Will it be Father, Elin, Milton, Daniel or Etsuko who flank my right in that order, or will it be Gunnar, Karla, Leonard, Mother or Keegan, who flank my left? And who will be the betrayer?
Anyone who has ever attempted to write a dinner scene will note how efficiently and elegantly Schell has not only seated eleven characters, but given their exact placements at the table, all while indicating tone with a “Last Supper” metaphor. Very nice.
Whether the skinheads are moved by Estuko’s Japanese cooking or not, I won’t reveal. After all, this novel isn’t really about them. It’s about family and friendship and overcoming the occasional ugliness of the world. I’ll close with this telling passage of Jake and his friend, Gunnar, fishing together, which serves as a nice summary for the whole of The Memoir of Jake Weedsong:
I cast out and let the current take my chartreuse yarn down the river, feeling the lead bounce along the river bottom. Gunnar sits and looks out at the river, a secret smile on his face, one that I know not to interrupt. He is now in a state of bliss, and should be left alone. I oblige, retract my line, cast again and let the river do the work until I need to reel in again, the warm hand of the sun on my back, two friends on a river, fishing, having caught something sublime.
Timothy Schell, author of the Mammoth Book Award winning novel The Drums of Africa, has the distinction of having served from 1978-79 in the Central Africa Empire, the short-lived monarchy of self-proclaimed “His Imperial Majesty” Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who ruled autocratically from 1976 to 1979 in what is now known as the Central Africa Republic. Schell teaches writing at Columbia Gorge Community College in Hood River, Oregon. He co-authored Mooring Against the Tide: Writing Fiction and Poetry, and co-edited the anthology A Writer’s Country, both from Prentice Hall. A recipient of a Pushcart nomination for fiction, Schell won the Martindale Award for Long Fiction. He was a 2010 Finalist for the AWP Novel Award for The Memoir of Jake Weedsong.
Reviewer Tony D’Souza’s (Ivory Coast 2000–02, Madagascar 2002–03) third novel, Mule, was released last month to praise from Vanity Fair, Gawker, and the San Francisco Chronicle. His website is: http://TonyDSouza.com .