HEADS BY HARRY

The conclusion to Honolulu poet and novelist Yamanaka’s raffish trilogy (Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers, 1996; Blu’s Hanging, 1997) is another agreeably comic tale of growing up absurd amid the natural beauty and polyracial confusion of the islands. The relentlessly episodic story is narrated by Toni Yagyuyu, middle child of a Japanese-American family whose father, the eponymous Harry, runs the taxidermy shop above which his unruly family live. Besides Toni, there are her forthright “Mommy,” who’s both science teacher and earth mother; older brother Sheldon (“Shelly”), a flamboyantly gay cross-dresser; and younger sister Bunny, “a home-sewn clothes horse” and everybody’s pet. Meantime, everybody also yells a lot at everybody else in a hilariously rendered Hawaiian-American pidgin dialect, as Yamanaka knowingly takes us through Toni’s reluctant progress toward adulthood. Her only distinction in an otherwise mediocre high-school career is a prizewinning science project designed to answer the question “What do wild Euro-Polynesian pigs do to the ecosystem?—After that, things get weird. In college, Toni discovers cocaine, discos, and sex; flunks out; forms a curious further relationship with her childhood buddies the macho Santos brothers (football hero Maverick and criminally inclined Wyatt)—either of whom may be the lover who got her pregnant, both of whom become baby daughter Harper’s “fathers.” Baby is named for Billy Harper, the Yagyuyus’ live-in friend who’s too young to be Toni’s real boyfriend . . . it goes like that, until the cholerically weary Harry (a terrific comic character) accepts as his apprentices Toni and the Santoses, and passes the torch.” But with conditions. It’s a breezy ride of a story, helpfully peppered with wonderfully obscene and funny shards of broken English (“I might have to broke your ass”). High-energy fiction from a talented writer. One’s only complaint is that this essentially reworks, with very similar if not identical characters, the contents of Yamanaka’s earlier books.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-374-16850-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 1998

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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2015

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More about grief and tragedy than romance.

FRIENDS FOREVER

Five friends meet on their first day of kindergarten at the exclusive Atwood School and remain lifelong friends through tragedy and triumph.

When Gabby, Billy, Izzie, Andy and Sean meet in the toy kitchen of the kindergarten classroom on their first day of school, no one can know how strong the group’s friendship will remain. Despite their different personalities and interests, the five grow up together and become even closer as they come into their own talents and life paths. But tragedy will strike and strike again. Family troubles, abusive parents, drugs, alcohol, stress, grief and even random bad luck will put pressure on each of them individually and as a group. Known for her emotional romances, Steel makes a bit of a departure with this effort that follows a group of friends through young adulthood. But even as one tragedy after another befalls the friends, the impact of the events is blunted by a distant narrative style that lacks emotional intensity. 

More about grief and tragedy than romance.

Pub Date: July 24, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-385-34321-3

Page Count: 322

Publisher: Delacorte

Review Posted Online: Nov. 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

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