I wrote recently of buying a stack of books at the closing sale of Mandala Books in Daytona. One of the books in that stack was an ‘old’ book, a first novel by John Burnham Schwartz, published in 1989 and titled Bicycle Days. The novel had passed through my fingers on more than one occasion over the years, always in a Tokyo bookstore, sometimes in secondhand sales. For some reason I never took it home to read, though I knew it was about a young American’s first experience in Japan. Perhaps I was too caught up in my own experiences and thought it might be a naive story, a superficial recounting of a brief summer in Japan.
Finally, buying and reading Mr Schwartz’s book all these years later has been more than a little interesting. I couldn’t help but read the book through the filter of my own long years in Japan, and the changes I witnessed there over the years. Much about Japan and the Japanese is very different now, twenty-one years after the story told in Bicycle Days. Still, there is enough in this novel for me to admit that it held me to my seat turning pages.
Alec Stern arrives in Japan to discover a whole new world, fresh out of college and with a summer job at an American company in Tokyo. All has been arranged for him, and he finds himself living with a Japanese family, eyes open to not just a new city and culture, but a new family who treats him like a son. The other half of the the novel deals with the ghosts Alec left behind in New York. In one sense, he has come to Japan to wipe the slate clean, to escape memories of his parents' divorce, and a difficult relationship with his brother. Schwartz alternates his chapters, moving between the newness of Alec’s life in Tokyo and the memories of New York that haunt him.
The novel is a good one, but as a first novel there are some weaknesses that stand out over the course of its 250 pages. It is presented in a diary-like narrative in which the main character can be said to be a little too self-involved. The complete lack of humor is also disturbing in a set up that bubbles with potential. Foreigners new to Japan often have hilarious encounters where language and culture are involved. Unfortunately, Mr Schwartz left those out of his story.
Many of the book’s forty chapters are interesting in a comparative sense, and some readers may be eager to read descriptions of experiences they share with the writer. At least, that was true for me.
There is one passage in the chapter, “The Club Scene” that is especially fine. The main character is seeing Kabuki-cho for the first time, a section of Shinjuku devoted to the sex industry…
‘Alec peered from under his umbrella. The sex shops and pornographic movie houses around him were lost in the buzz and glow of multicolored neon. It spread over the rain-wet streets and cars, over the moving pedestrians and their black umbrellas, over the corner vending machines, until the entire neighborhood was bathed in eerie fragments of wild, electric color. Shrill voices announced opportunities for sex and voyeurism. Quick, eager hands closed around crisp bills and whisked dark-suited men down into unseen basements. The men were of all ages, many still dressed in their business clothes, as solemn and upright as rush hour commuters going home to their wives. Alec thought they looked like obscene moving advertisements, these men, caught in the flashing neon of sex shops, their destination etched in their faces like smiles.’
A dead-on-target picture of Kabuki-cho.
John Burnham Schwartz has written three subsequent novels, the latest published in 2009, titled The Commoner.