The following is an excerpt from my novel, the Ghosts of Nagasaki, which should be appearing in late 2012.
Description of the Novel:
One night a foreign business analyst in Tokyo sits down in his spacious high rise apartment and begins typing something. The words pour out and exhaust him. He soon realizes that the words appearing on his laptop are memories of his first days in Nagasaki four years ago.
Nagasaki, the non-birthplace of atomic warfare, but instead its brother, second cousin, was a place full of spirits, a garrulous Welsh roommate, and a lingering mystery. Though he wants to give up his writing, though he wants to let the past rest, within his compulsive writing is the key to his salvation.
Somehow he must finish the story of four years ago—a story that involves a young Japanese girl, the ghost of a dead Japanese writer, and a mysterious island. He must solve this mystery while maneuvering the hazards of middle management, a cruel Japanese samurai, and his own knowledge that if he doesn’t solve this mystery soon his heart will transform into a ball of steel, crushing his soul forever.
Excerpt: She Can See Them Too
Mikey Welsh slams down his beer, his head spins around, and charismatically, with a politician’s grin, he says something inspirational about friendship. Then he drops his pants and starts doing his best Iggy Pop impression.
In a matter of a few weeks, frequenting Japanese pubs, or what the Japanese call izakayas, has become something of a routine for me and several of the expats I work with. And in no time I equate Nagasaki with alcoholism and debauchery. That, and an excruciating pain where my heart should be.
“Are you all right, mate?” the Welshman asks.
“No,” I say. “I think I have heartburn or something.”
“Heartburn. Really? Well no worries. Here, drink some beer. You’ll feel better.”
The pain in my heart is sudden and wrenching. When it’s over, I make up my mind to treat the pain with heavier doses of alcohol.
We are always celebrating something. On the surface it seems as if we’re celebrating both the arrival of new teachers and the departure of old ones, but later I realize that, for many, we’re celebrating the fact that we’re staying, that another night of izakayas and karaoke lay in our future.
We base our small community on shared Lost Boy ideals of frivolous youth, limited responsibility, and impromptu pants dropping. In that vein, we try to fill ourselves with happy thoughts and beer in liberal doses and hook up with as many females as we can find.
“Nomihodai. Nomihodai. Nomihodai,” my Welsh roommate insists.
“Learn this word well, my friend. It means all you can drink. When you come in, you say that word. Then you say ‘nama biru.’ That’s your beer from the tap. ‘Nama’ means ‘raw,’ and if you can’t figure out what ‘biru’ means then you might just be retarded….Beer comes with a lot of head here. Don’t ask me why, it just does. And no matter how hard you try to get them to take the head out they won’t, because that’s like the rule in Japan. And there is nothing worse mate than fucking with a Japanese man’s rules. So don’t even bother trying to get them to take the head out.”
In no time whatsoever, we end up stumbling from this izakaya to another. With us, we drag the spirit of the Roaring Twenties. As much as I want to let this lie, in the graveyard, in the college lit class I never really liked, I had come to believe that we existed as something out of a Hemingway or Fitzgerald novel. As we stumble into another izakaya, I push this Hemingway/Fitzgerald analogy on Mikey, who is having trouble crossing his legs properly.
“That’s odd. I knew how to cross my legs a second ago. Didn’t seem that difficult then.”
He gets his legs crossed and smiles. “Hope it’s not this hard at the next izakaya.”
I once again tell him my insight about Hemingway and Fitzgerald and the Roaring Twenties. He rests a motherly hand on my shoulder. “And that my friend is what foreigners do in Japan: they go on the piss and make pointless analogies based on things they learned in their liberal arts courses. Nomihodai,” my Welsh roommate insists again. “This will be a very important word for you.”
In Tokyo, predictably, when the toil of my work-dance is over with I’m back at my desk doing the bad memoir thing. I should give it up and start going to snack bars, I think. Then I can be a true businessman bastard. But no, no reason to swap one pointless venture for another. Instead, I think of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. I do what foreigners in Japan do after they have made pointless analogies based on things they learned in their liberal arts degrees―ruminate on them and ascribe more meaning to them than they actually have.
Sitting in our third or fourth nomihodai, I try to explain to the Welshman that I think perhaps we are a kind of lost generation or at least Lost Boys. The Welshman, however, is busy staring at one of the Japanese girls we are with.
“What? You mean like Peter Pan?”
He’s drunk now, and seems generally agitated with me for bringing up novels and kids books.
Sitting Indian-style in our little tatami booth waiting for the drinks to arrive, I can’t help but feel a wave of exhaustion―or maybe it’s the stabbing pain in my heart that’s wearing me out. It seems like we’d started our first nomihodai such a long time ago. Now we’re on our third or fourth, and we’d managed to pick up strangers along the way. It’s as if we’d traded in ten of our friends for new ones and wandered into yet a different city―a city within a city. My head is spinning uncontrollably and this makes everything that much easier to cope with.
“This is Randy Andy, all the whore you can fit into an Aussie. This is Makiko the new staff member. This is Jim from Jersey, good for a laugh but a bit on the preachy side when it comes to religion, and don’t get him started on his theories of the Japanese Eugenics Project.”
Who is talking? Does it matter anymore?
My head is swirling with names. I chug more alcohol to scatter them into oblivion.
“You need to lighten up, mate,” the Welshman says.
I’m having trouble understanding him through his thick Welsh accent and often have to turn to Jim from Jersey for help.
Jim from Jersey is on his eleventh month in Japan, and while he doesn’t know much Japanese, he has picked up a whole lot of Welsh banter. So in my drunken state he ends up translating.
“Learn to love it. This is the only country where you can have so many instant friends and none of them want to borrow money,” Jim says to me.
This is true.
In the back of my mind is the view of the countryside as I leave the tunnel on the Shinkansen. The view of farms and farm land, simplicity. Completely and irretrievably lost, I could see myself walking those mountains forever, or stretching out on a beach somewhere, letting the tide take me out to sea.
“See, if I was back home, I would be struggling in some job I hate, trying to make ends meet, not making ends meet, trying to sort my friends out, worried about this fucker or that fucker messing with me, whether I was going to get shot in the back leaving my house. Here all I have to do is show up to work on time, relax, and enjoy Mikey’s rants and pants dropping spectacles.”
Jim from Jersey looks up and points. “See.” And sure enough Mikey Welsh has his pants down once again, to both the embarrassment and joy of the Japanese staff.
And that is our life, for a while anyway. With a little bit of drink in us, like a contagion, one would drop his pants, dance in his underwear, occasionally show his penis, then another person would drop their pants, and perhaps another. The girls would giggle (to our credit this was a three or four nomihodai thing), and then we’d be thrown out and off to our next nomihodai.
On this particularly joyous occasion, the usually conservative Jim from Jersey has had way too much to drink and is now holding his wiener in hand using it as a microphone to do interviews.
“And how about you, Makiko? How are you doing tonight? Doing all right?”
“Yada, yada, yada,” (no, no, no) she screams, with a huge smile on her face.
“No, no comment. Anything you’d like to say about the prime minister of Japan or the state of Japanese politics?” He holds his wiener closer to her, which sends her screaming toward the bathroom.
“No,” he says. “Okay, on to our next interview then.”
He turns to Mikey. “So, what’s your story? How do you like your stay so far? Do you feel like you’ve fully assimilated to Japanese culture? Are you feeling any cultural aftershlongs?”
Mikey finds himself staring into the hypnotic eye of Jim’s organic microphone. “To be honest Jim, I haven’t. I find there’s too much head in the beer here. And quite frankly, I find the food a bit flaccid. The rules are too rigid. I’ve been in a few hairy situations. But I feel as long as I stay firm and resolute, I’ll come out on top. In conclusion, we need to hold new erections, so we can erect more upright politicians. Now get that damn microphone out of my face.”
From there Mikey goes into a little bit of song: Monty Python’s
“Isn’t it Great to have a Penis?” with a transition into
“Anarchy in the UK.”
When Mikey has finished singing, he finds himself back in his seat next to me. “See, Jim from Jersey was once a mild mannered, wholesome American cunt like you. All about preaching the book of Mormon or some such thing. Now look at him. In another month, you will have forgotten all about your liberal arts education and have devolved into an utter brute like the rest of us,” the Welshman concludes.
I nod my head in agreement. As I do, the heartburn comes back, and I reach for my chest. The beer and the pain mix together and as I fall backwards my last image is that of the girl on the train with the downcast stare.
When I close my laptop, I’m still clutching my chest. It’s not so much a pain as it is a kind of numbness. I’m not sure if I’ve always had it or if it’s something that’s only started recently, a result of the bad memoir business. I steady myself. Nothing to worry about, I think. Take some Tums, eat less meat, stop the writing and the pain will go away.
My brain says this, but there is a voice in my head, eloquent and strong, that says differently.
After a Friday night of drinking in my past four years ago, I now have a Friday night of drinking in my present. How many izakayas and nomihodais in my past? How many izakayas and nomihodais in my future? This particular night I’m meeting some university students. There is a girl among them that I particularly like. She is smart and classy. She is worldly for a Japanese girl, and on top of everything, she likes me.
I’ve forgotten how young college students can be, and how old I sometimes feel sitting with them. Sitting Indian-style, the pain in my knee comes back to me. In a hip little izakaya/ club, we can listen to the techno music while sitting in our private booth. My head is still spinning from the writing process. Nothing seems to happen for a long time. I sway to the music and forget whether anyone has ordered anything. Magically, drinks appear in front of us. I give a “kampai” (cheers), and this gets everyone started.
One of my friends asks me what it’s like to be a business analyst for a major international investment firm. I have trouble speaking. I can understand everything he says and asks me, but my head floats on a different plane, and on that plane I’m unable to answer him.
What? I ask myself. I work for an investment firm?
“Surreal,” I blurt out finally, in English, and my friends just stare at me confused.
I find myself getting drunk rather quickly. There is something odd about this, like a full night of nomihodais is now catching up to me. And without any Welshman or Jim from Jersey to drop their pants, I find myself getting bored very quickly.
One of the guys, Koji, after a superfluous amount of compliments on everything from my Japanese to my hair style, asks me how he can go about getting a job at an investment firm like mine. I end up explaining to him for the millionth time how things work in the universe. That for some strange reason a friend introduces you to a friend who thinks you would be good for a certain job. You help this person get out of a jam once or twice, and just like that you have yourself a stuffy job and a salary, and you spend your days fighting off advances from the office lady who is desperate to get married.
“And that’s life,” I say definitively.
I start to wonder whether I should recommend him for a job at my firm once he graduates, but I think: nah, better to convince him to study linguistics or to spend a year backpacking somewhere, preferably somewhere he won’t get kidnapped. Why? Because that’s the way the world works. You walk the path two steps away from your dream and three steps away from anything that seems remotely rational.
In reverse of that night in Nagasaki, I find that the more I drink the more self-conscious I become. What’s worse is the girl who before seemed so witty and delightful to talk to has suddenly become quiet and brooding. This is a huge bummer. The group picks up on it, and it soon becomes a collective bummer.
When I ask Koji what’s wrong with her, he feigns ignorance.
I feel that this might be the opportune moment to whip out my penis and have some impromptu interviews. As I am the only foreigner in the group, without anyone to share the theatrics, I think that this is probably not the best move.
I’m drunk now, nasty-tasting shochu running through me, and my thoughts turn to Nagasaki. When I go home I know I’ll sit down, drunk as hell, and try to continue on with my foolish writing. My hands will reach over the keyboard and look for the symptoms of the past, hoping to find its disease.
After failing miserably to pee in a urinal, spraying innocent bystanders instead, I show up at the table. It’s clear at this point that I’m nowhere close to scoring. The hip girl’s face won’t even look at me. But it’s not her silence that bothers me, the secrets she keeps, her private frustrations, but rather it’s the angle of her gaze as she looks at the floor. Reflected in the glass of our table, fragmented in disco lights and techno music, she sees something. When I look close enough, looking into the reflection of her downcast eyes, I can see them too.