Another bout of vacation reading: Rain Fall, the first of Barry Eiseler’s novels about a Japanese American assassin, and another book I found out about by hanging out on Twitter. My response to the novel gets me thinking about how readers engage writing.
Eisler pulls off a tough sell: a first-person narrative by a killer for hire. John Rain’s only two requirements about his targets are that they be male and directly involved in the problem. Rain has backstory, of course, but he doesn’t try to rationalize his income as, say, freedom fighting.
Eisler, the author, has highlighted aspects of his biography in the publicity surrounding his Rain novels. He’s former CIA operative who lived in Japan for several years studying martial arts. Part of the way he makes John Rain come off as mercenary is the workaday detail on how to follow someone or avoid being followed—this isn’t sentimentality or paranoia but competence on display. He vividly re-creates the look and mood of the streets and and train stations and nightclubs of Tokyo as well.
However, while reading, I found my prime response to be nostalgia. During about the third passage in Rain Fall where John Rain is assessing layout and crowds while walking down a street that isn’t the fastest way to get to his destination (the better to see if you’re being followed), I realized, hey—I was there.
And this is although my background is anti-Eisler: I went to a college where the students picketed the CIA recruiters. I did take judo, where I earned the moniker “Good Sport” (the white belt), since I remained friends with my sparring partner in spite of her constant ability to slam me to the mat. I also lived in Japan: a far-from-covert year teaching eighth graders the present progressive. That really was my job, not some covert operator code; my resonance with Rain’s circuitous routes was due to my remedial reading ability. I missed busses, got on the wrong trains, and walked everywhere, anywhere, at any time of day and alone (I have a pink dress and I’m not afraid to wear it).*
To be Caucasian in Japan is to stand out. I lived in the major southern port, a metropolis of 500,000 people, and in my first month I saw twelve other Caucasians. I knew nine of them by name. So to operate this way as a small non-martial artist wasn’t entirely foolhardy. Although it was wearing to have the ambassador mode always on, a sense of safety accrues when your movements are so visible: in a country where people don’t want to make a scene, I was too high profile to mess with.
In Eisler’s novel, Rain gets involved with a jazz pianist who’s the daughter of his last hit and is now in danger herself, and his descriptions of hanging around night clubs and musicians were another point of identification for me. During one vacation, I took an overnight ferry to Okinawa and islands south. As night fell, the passengers with the cheap tickets rolled out sleeping mats in a great room below deck. A few mats away, the other white person on board nodded a greeting and we introduced ourselves.
This was potentially a complicated interaction. Some whites were hostile about the implication of racial solidarity. Some didn’t speak English. Some weren’t nearly the intrepid travelers, and you’d just saddled yourself with a tagalong that would feel like abandoning a puppy to ditch. Mark was Australian, a guitar player who was going to Okinawa with his friend Kunihiko Sugano, a jazz pianist who had a week of gigs lined up, and we did the upright independent traveler thing and ignored each other for the rest of the voyage. However, we ended up sharing a cab into town once the ferry docked, and Kuni asked if I’d like to come along and hear them play.
I sat in a smoky bar and drank lemon squash (not Rain’s preferred scotch) and talked to an old Okinawan about the war. “Call me Jimmy,” he told me, and explained how the Americans had saved Okinawa from the Japanese. He turned out to have some skill as a hard bop drummer; he joined the band for a couple of songs to finish out the set and we all went to get dinner.
I went to see Kuni play a couple more times that year. The jazz musicians and the entourage were easy people for me to hang around with. I had to speak Japanese with them, but I didn’t have to analyze cultural differences; once it was determined that you liked the music, you were in. They were an adventure I’d found all by myself. So late nights in jazz clubs—living it, not just listening—give me that warm squishy feeling, regardless, as it turns out, of whether the club is a haven from nefarious fictional deeds to come.
As a writer, you work, you polish, you launch your cold-blooded assassin into the world—and then the readers say, “Awwww, trains!” Hopefully they at least bought the book.
(This is what life brings to reading. Next post is what life brings to writing, because I’m still in the Japan groove.)
* Fortunately, no photos survive.