The Tattoo – Chris McKinney
I wanted to love this book; truly I did. I was born and raised on Oahu’s north shore and went to UH. McKinney’s settings in Honolulu and on the windward side are my old stomping grounds. In addition, I’ve taught in prisons (and taught prison lit), and working-class and prison issues are among the themes I’m most interested in seeing dealt with in fiction. Based on the (overly) positive reviews on Amazon, I ordered a copy because I was anxious to see how a writer had combined those elements.
Unfortunately, this is not a great book, and it’s not a great book because Chris McKinney is not yet a great writer. His weak points significantly mar The Tattoo.
First, McKinney’s “framing device” – the felon, Ken Hideyoshi relates his life story to the haole tattoo artist, Cal, who can no longer speak because he “got his throat cut.” Fair enough. If what we are reading is Ken’s story, as related to (and presumably, later written down by) Cal, Ken’s language should reflect speech. It doesn’t. Ken’s prose is literary, flowery, and sometimes even a little on the purple side. So why the expedient of Cal, who remains a silent, smiling, and essentially addle-brained cipher?
One answer is the rather heavy-handed symbolism of “silencing” the haole so the “local” can speak. It’s interesting, but the effect is the opposite of the one intended: Ken is permanently “mediated” by Cal–that is, he speaks always through the hated haole. But why can’t Ken speak for himself? Why does the story require Cal to “deliver” Ken’s memories when Ken is perfectly capable of doing it for himself?
As a corollary, McKinney’s narrative choice necessarily means that we are “told” everything in the past tense and can never experience anything in the book’s fictional present tense. (The only thing that’s in the book’s present is the creation of Ken’s tattoo.) The result flattens and mutes the drama and tension. We know the important events are all in the past; we know that Ken came through them. The emotion that’s recounted takes on a second-hand veneer.
Second, there’s Kinney’s rendition of pidgin, which is painful to read when it isn’t simply odd. As a writer, I’ll be the first to say that it is a devilish task to put Hawai’ian pidgin on paper in a way that isn’t incomprehensible or that doesn’t make it sound like baby talk. But McKinney (and his editors) needed to find a better way. The lexical system that McKinney hits on is neither phonetic, consistent, nor logical: “hea” for “here” (when heeah might make more sense) or “stranga” for strange-ah, in which the soft “g” sound is lost. In addition, McKinney’s ear is sometimes tin, and there are half-pidgin, half “standard” English sentences that I’ll wager McKinney never heard anyone say. For example, “You must be from da mainland,” in which the speaker uses “da” for “the,” but pronounces the “must” of “mus’ be” correctly; or “I went arready put mine,” in which the “arready” is accurate, but the “wen'” is lost in that grammatical “went.” In the end, all of this becomes a huge distraction.
Third, there’s a point-of-view problem that lurks in the background throughout the text but which stands up and shouts in the epilogue whose events neither Cal (nor Ken) can possibly know. Insisting on staying with Ken (or with Ken-through-Cal), in fact, means a limitation of POV that’s a shame, and it creates situations in which Ken must explain, rather awkwardly, why he knows something that he didn’t witness. Since the voices of the women in this story, especially that of Claudia, are as interesting as Ken’s, the novel would have been opened up considerably via the use of alternating chapters or some other device that would have made her POV available.
Though Ken’s story is certainly intriguing, the reader is left with the sensation that he’s not the most interesting character (Koa, for that matter, is). In addition, his last-chapter philosophizing — which the novel’s shape essentially requires — rings an extremely false tone.
The prizes and accolades that McKinney has garnered for The Tattoo come in part because he has written about something that no one else has. Perhaps he deserves them for that reason alone. We’re anxious to see ourselves named in fiction in the islands, and not by outsiders but by our own. On the other hand, the arts scene in Honolulu is so inbred and so affected by “small pond” syndrome that it’s difficult to know where merit truly lies. There was much in The Tattoo that resonated in my experience, but that could just as well be said about the scrapbooks I keep. Meanwhile, the great book about Hawai’i by someone who is of the culture and who knows it intimately is waiting to be written.