By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
John Keeble’s novel “Yellowfish” begins in the thick fog of San Francisco’s Chinatown. In such a fog, things disappear and shapes begin to transform into something else.
This is an appropriate, symbolic beginning for a story that invokes many cultures, Chinese and otherwise, but leaves the reader with little clarification at the end. Keeble’s narrative examines the confusion of multiculturalism, but settles only to reaffirm this perplexity rather than exploring deeper into the subject.
The protagonist is Wesley Erks, a resident of eastern Washington. Erks will move any kind of merchandise, legal or otherwise, if the price is right. His morality is reminiscent of the wild frontier of the “Old West,” where a man could rightly earn a living at whatever he chose, so long as a sheriff didn’t catch him.
Figuratively, Erks lives in the new West. He dodges state troopers, not sheriffs. However, his risks, and his belief in his right to run them, are influenced from these older times.
Erks carries three young Chinese men in his car, illegally brought over the Canadian border. He doesn’t bother to learn the men’s real names because in his mind, since they don’t speak English, any three words will do.
The gap between Erks and his human cargo is significant. By the story’s end, he’ll learn a little bit more about the Chinese way of life, but not much.
Jui, a prominent Chinese businessman, receives the three men. Jui outwardly courts approval, which is hinted by his photos of elders and the ceramic Buddha prominently displayed in his office. Privately, however, he doesn’t live up to his public image because when alone, he removes the Buddha’s head to tap cigar ash down into its hollow body.
Jui, like Erks, does what he pleases. However, he is held accountable, unlike Erks, to a system of officials, some in legal business and some in the illegal “Triad,” or Chinese mafia business.
From Jui, Erks receives new instructions. Several more young Chinese men await him in Vancouver B.C. However, this new load of passengers includes an important man: Ginarn Taam, the son of a recently deceased Chinatown bigwig. Taam has plans to gain control of his father’s business interests. First, he has to get across the border.
Taam also has to stay alive, healthy, and free. Worse yet, the Triad wants him dead. Taam ponders these points as Erks ushers him into his vehicle in Vancouver. Unfortunately, we don’t learn much about Taam other than his calm contemplation regarding these turbulent circumstances. On multiple occasions, author Keeble refers to a “mask” Erks sees on Taam.
The mask represents the cross-cultural barrier between the two men. But Taam speaks very little and Keeble spends so much time with sudden, sometimes bloody action, that whatever is underneath this symbolic mask is never revealed.
Supporters of “Yellowfish,” reissued since first being published in 1980, say it isn’t your typical action book. Certainly, your typical action novel doesn’t contain such words as “lacuna,” “adamance,” and “dealbate.” The novel’s slice-and-dice action, awkwardly placed amid paragraphs of metaphysical pondering, clumsily brings it down to earth.
Toward the end, Erks, a man who thought he understood what was going on, stands with one man’s torn skin in his shirt pocket and another man’s blood splattered on his shirt. He doesn’t know quite how he got to that point.
Unfortunately, the reader doesn’t either. (end)
“Yellowfish: A Novel,” is by John Keeble, published by the University of Washington Press, Seattle. $18.95.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.