By Alan Chin
Zumaya Boundless, 2008
Reviewed by Victor J. Banis
When it was first suggested to me that I write something for a blog site on forgotten or neglected works (http://patti-fridaysforgottenbooks.blogspot.com ), my mind went quite awhirl. Crime, she suggested? Oh, the choices available. Who, today, other than the occasional scholar, has read James M. Cain's Serenade, though in many ways it is his best work? But the very field of crime novels (perhaps the most American of all literary genres) conjures up so many delicious possibilities, so many reads permeated by Chandler's "scent of fear." Hammet's The Glass Key, perhaps? Is that really his "least interesting work," as some have suggested, or, as others have described it, "his most accessible?"
But wait. Not necessarily a crime story, I was told, which opens a still wider door. What of Maugham's The Summing Up, surely an elegant (if, as it turned out, several years premature) coda to the remarkable life of a man who still today remains an enigma. Or Forster's Maurice, whose essence is the mystery of one's own nature, and truly remarkable for having been written in 1914, so far ahead of its day that it dared not be published until 1971?
In the end, though, and not without great mulling about, I chose what might be considered, length notwithstanding, a "small" book, one which has not been around long enough to be described as forgotten, though I do think it has been unjustly neglected. Nor is it quite a crime story, though there are crimes in it. Violent crimes, yes, but more significantly, in my opinion, crimes against love, which surely ought to be heinous enough for any reader.
Alan Chin's Island Song is, for want of a better description, a love story, but it is so outside the boundaries usually pertinent to that genre that I fear I am starting off on the wrong foot by labeling it so. It could also be described as a "gay novel," but I don't think that label is any more appropriate, either. It is a novel about love, but of many sorts and of many aspects, and some of that love occurs between two men, but this is truly not the thrust of the story, only one element of it.
The novel begins on an eerie metaphysical note. An ancient Hawaiian shaman, known to everyone only as "Grandfather," and his grandson, Songoree, come to a small island in the middle of the night to perform a mystical ceremony, summoning the ancient island Gods, Kane and Pele. "Bring forth the Speaker," the old man chants. "Bring forth the Speaker."
The story's focus shifts to Garret Davidson. Two years after the AIDS related death of his lover in San Francisco, Davidson comes to Hawaii to write a book about his lost love. He wants only to be alone in the beach shack he has rented, to stare out at the endless ocean and heal his wounded spirit.
He has rented the shack, however, from Grandfather, who sends Songoree to serve as Davidson's housekeeper and man-of-all trades. At first, a bitter Davidson resists Song's ministrations, but the old Kahuna has his own plans for these two and in time they become entwined in an extraordinary relationship, a relationship increasingly resented by Song's surfer friends. Violence follows, vicious and sudden, like the bite of a great white shark.
Island Song is not only about the love that gradually grows between Song and Davidson, however. There is as well a profound love between grandfather and grandson; the love that both of them have for their island traditions; the love of friends. Even the all-sacrificing love of a dog for his human partner. Most especially there is a love of nature, and of the mystical.
Wafting through it all, like the tropical breeze rustling the leaves of the palm trees, is the author's love for his idyllic island setting and for the interconnectedness that he sees lying beneath the surface of all existence: "All things begin within the density of silence."
Alan Chin has penned an uplifting read that transports one not only to Hawaii, but ultimately and far more importantly to the island that lies within, the island of the heart. What the author would have us understand is that it is on this island where the wounded and the unhappy—and isn't that at one time or another each of us—will find the healing, the peace, they seek. This is its song.
A beautiful book. The real crime here would be in not reading it.
Victor J. Banis is the author of more than 160 published works in a career spanning nearly half a century. He has been called the "godfather of modern popular gay fiction" (Thomas Long, PhD). Learn more at http://www.vjbanis.com