Given that the meanings of a novel are necessarily a pact between author and reader, it is always hazardous for an author to comment on his own work. Despite these misgivings, I sketch the themes of this "small" story in the hopes of enriching the reader's enjoyment.
Perhaps the most profound historical change taking place in the United States is the intermingling of races. By this I mean not the integration of various ethnicities within communities but the mixing of bloodlines within individuals. In Hawaii, people of mixed heritage are often called "hapas," which means "half" in Hawaiian. Over the course of a very few generations, ethnicities have become so melded that many in Hawaii possess four, five, or even six different lineages. My own family has mixed Anglo, Asian and African-American bloodlines in a single generation.
This book stems from a belief that the single greatest strength of our nation is the independence of American identity from any racial, religious or ideological profile. The immigrant experience, so integral to the nation's history and identity, has long been a well of inspiration to writers; the frictions between the first generation and its fantasies of returning to the the Old Country, and their children, to whom the Old Country will forever be alien, resonate with each new wave of Americans.
This is a story not of immigrants coming to a new American identity, but of two mixed-blood Americans forging their identity within a New America of blended ethnicities.
A nuanced but debilitating trap awaits those of multiple bloodlines. Traditional ethnic groups feel compelled to maintain triplines of identity, and failure to meet these standards introduces an "either-or" dilemma: since you are not quite one of "us," you have forfeited your "authentic" heritage for a false one. Alex vociferously rejects his cousin's attempt to judge his state of grace, for in simply being himself he is Hawaiian; there is no Otherness in being Hawaiian which requires approval by others.
While circumstances may make Daz aware of his skin, his identity is entirely a question of exploring the boundaries of his unconventionality. If, along with Wittgenstein, we see language and thought as one, then it is clear that Daz thinks along entirely unique pathways; as a result he will never fit anyone's conception of identity. Like Alex, his identity is always that of an individual, never of a group; it is this unflagging independence of spirit which binds the two despite their very different characters.
Being neither here nor there within the various ethnic triplines, the two are bound by the liberty and burden of not fitting in--not just ethnically, but in the broader reaches of conventionality.
The refuge of tradition offers a deep, enduring comfort to humanity; follow these rules, and the peace of a ready-made identity is yours for the taking. All human societies provide expansive refuges of tradition, but America also proffers up a more unique refuge: freedom from tradition.
This alternative refuge is rooted in our nation’s history of religious freedom and the barricade between church and state which protects that freedom; but it is also rooted in the country’s vast geography. The other national bastions of personal freedom can be crossed in a day’s drive; the diversity of their landscapes and societies is, in comparison with the United States, rather poor.
The American landscape--an unspoken but omnipresent protagonist in any story of continental wandering--offers a place to leave histories behind and, somewhere, to start fresh; its open skies provide space to ask the big questions and elbow room for unlimited possibility. While other cultures are shackled to the past, we are all young in America; breaking free of the demands for conformity requires little more than a tank of gas or a bus ticket to some place a hundred zip codes away, where the one element you are sure to find is surprise--at what you come across in the landscape and in yourself.
Great journeys are inevitably stories of transformation or discovery--of territory or self, or perhaps both. The cliché is that there are only two stories: a stranger comes to town or a journey is undertaken. Daz and Alex are both strangers who come to town and seekers. Their aim is not the recovery of riches or vine-choked exotica, nor is it the stretching of license in some exploration of excess. With nowhere else to go at home, their response is quintessentially American: get moving.
This movement is not metaphorical; responsibilities and even entire identities can be abandoned, re-invented, or discovered in another place. In this sense the American love of cars is entirely practical, for the ability to transport oneself is integral to American optimism.
Physical labor has fallen into disfavor in what passes for popular culture in the United States. The most coveted careers require clean fingernails, multiple gadgets, an office cleaned after hours by persons unseen and unknown, and the cutting of a wide swath through either entrepreneurial derring-do or media exposure. Although Daz suffers bouts of doubt over his inability to pursue this hectic blandness with the expected gusto, both he and Alex are naturally drawn to the authenticities of handwork.
Like the Odd Squad, they are unable to squeeze themselves into a world of cubicles and staff meetings. The world of tools and dirt offers a satisfaction which is inexplicable to those content to stare at glowing screens all day, and it is the last and best refuge for all who rebel at chains of authority and fluorescent-lit interiors.
You would be justified in suspecting an authorial prejudice here, but it less than you might expect of someone who pursued a degree in philosophy and a career in carpentry with equal enthusiasm. One well-tilled element of the American character is self-reliance; we are a nation of do-it-yourselfers and tinkerers, and there is yet a latent respect for those who actually make as opposed to those who create pointers to that made or nurtured by others. Thus we find Daz as enthralled with Nikki’s cooking--from scratch, with real ingredients--as he is with her paintings.
I have found that many of the people pursuing tradecraft for their livelihood are as intellectually gifted as any in corner offices; but they, like Morris and the Odd Squad, have no heart for more regimented work, regardless of its higher pay or status.
The inauthenticity of a status-driven skin fuels Daz’s spontaneous rancor, as it should; for as the cliché has it, if you are not a socialist at twenty, you have no heart, but if you are still a socialist at thirty, you have no brains. But beyond this cliché of youthful idealism lies Emerson’s understanding of American identity: there is no authenticity but that which resides within oneself. The process of teasing out an understanding of oneself is inexact, and there is no substitute for trying things on for size, be they jeans or jobs or even roles in a play.
Young men are by nature drawn to testing themselves through the rigors of danger. The selective underpinnings of this drive are obvious; the timid have been left to die at the evaporating watering holes for too many millennia for those genes to dominate the ones encoding adventure and daring. Although it is not popular to acknowledge that the highest pinnacle of danger is combat, this accounts for Alex's fascination with the Vietnam veterans' stories. It is only when Alex is viscerally confronted with the terrible physical legacy of combat does he gain a realistic appreciation for its cost.
Military service has long been the highest proof of citizenship; like the young Japanese-American men who formed Hawaii's 442nd Combat Team in World War II and made it the most decorated unit of the war, the Chings' son served the nation most dutifully. This sacrifice haunts the father in ways Daz and Alex cannot yet understand, for the death of the son is not just a crushing loss of an only child but the extinguishing of a family lineage--and thus of the future itself.
The battle to break Mr. Ching's grip on the mothballed Lancer, and the subsequent return of the car at the story's end, is a measure of Mr. Ching’s burden and Daz’s growth; in the end, the life force of his matured optimism shakes the foundations of the older man's bitterness. This is the most personal promise of America: there is always a future and a hope, no matter how painful the sacrifices of the past.
A simple line divides child from adult; the latter gives in full measure while the former thoughtlessly receives. Maturity can be defined as a generosity of spirit unknown to the self-absorbed. What Daz and Alex offer up to the Chings at journey’s end is beyond easy distillation; but it is certainly tenderness, kindness, curiosity and the rare exhilaration of an unexpected gift.
Of the conditions for happiness, Freud identified but two: work and love. He would have been wise to add friendship, that most mysterious kinship of opposites and likenesses. For this is also a story of friendship, of being on your own and relying on another, of the truths and tolerances of a journey’s confined intimacy, of shared adventures experienced in unique ways, and of that ineffable essential, trust.
copyright © 2005 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.