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posted November 15, 2005
R. Kikuo Johnson
Fantagraphics, SC, 144 pages, 2005, $12.95
chronicles a short but turbulent period in the life of a prep school senior in Hawaii. The time in which protagonist Loren Foster finds himself is a familiar one. He's at that moment when the momentum of routine and school-related responsibility has ebbed just slightly enough so that someone who has defined himself that way can stand up and look around. The majority of the novella by first-timer R. Kikuo Johnson details what Foster sees and experiences during this moment of relative freedom. Johnson delineates a world of small-time pseudo-hoodlums involved in the lower ends of the drug trade and collecting money from some small bits of thievery in order to fund those activities. The setting and details of this lifestyle, a substitute for the more benign but equally banal nighttime fishing the protagonist used to pursue, are so lovingly drawn, both literally and figuratively, they threaten to overwhelm the books. Johnson's also not afraid to skew our perspective by showing the fun and flamboyant side of unfettered self-involvement, made narrow by a simple desire to procure and use.
Some might mistake the novel's last quarter to third as aimless wandering after the sharp portrayals and revealed information (there's a great section on Hawaiian migration to Las Vegas) of the work's start. But that's largely the idea. Johnson sidesteps moralizing -- the activities he shows are pretty much shitty and pointless throughout -- for a more subtle depiction of Loren Foster's orientation towards what he's experienced. Just because he's removed himself from the tidal pull of off-to-college momentum doesn't mean Loren knows how to act on his own. Every action is telegraphed and okayed by one of his immediate, dubious, same-age role-models. It's clearly something Loren has to deal with for the rest of his life. When financial circumstances hit Loren's dentist father enough to jar him out of his routine of office and yard work, immobility settles in on that character as well. It takes a combination of peers and dumb luck for Loren to be hit with any of the consequences of his activities. The book ends not with a moment of catharsis involving a night-fishing expedition with Loren's father or anything equally dopey or even rigidly, cleverly controlled, but rather a slow walk to school, eyes open to changes, and a final decision to opt out of a school activity that lets the reader decide if Foster has succumbed to bad habit or won out over a certain social rigidity -- kind of like the end of Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused
, with the kids on the football field, only internalized. That lighter touch seems to me a sign more promising than even the fluid, often beautiful art that Johnson is a cartoonist to watch.