That last question comes from my son and sometimes the answer is yes. He always expects to be given candy, just as some people assume they know the answers to the other three questions. Like my son, sometimes they are right. I wear my Stephen King fandom on my sleeve — and sometimes on my T-shirts — which leads people to believe they will get a Stephen King answer when inquiring about my favorite book.
That’s when things get fun. I do have a favorite King novel (“Bag of Bones”), but as much as I love that book, it is not my all-time favorite book. Let me take you back about 11 years to the discovery of my favorite book.
In 2004, I was a student at the Community College of Southern Nevada — the “community” has since been removed, but the school produced 2015 National League MVP Bryce Harper, and I am quite proud of that. My English professor mentor was also a book reviewer for a now defunct Las Vegas alt-weekly, and translations of Japanese novels were big at the time thanks to the insurgence of J-horror films such as “The Ring.” Vertical Inc. was making the big push in translations of Japanese works from novels, non-fiction and manga. My mentor recommended one book to me, and I read it in a day, then ordered my own copy that same week.
To say that “Sayonara, Gangsters” by Genichiro Takahashi (translation by Michael Emmerich) was anything less than transformational for me would be an understatement. I had been reading a lot of Jack Kerouac and Chuck Palahniuk at the time. Those experimental writers allowed me to dive right into the semi-futuristic world of poetry teachers, neo-noir gangsters and Greek epic poets reincarnated as refrigerators.
There are only snippets of plot in “Sayonara, Gangsters” so summarizing the novel is one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to do. Generally, I hand over my copy and say, “Just read it, you’ll either understand or you won’t.”
Understanding comes in many forms. During one section of the book, we learn that the name a person is given at birth is not the name that will continue with that person throughout life. Lovers name each other, which is how we end up with a woman named Song Book. Parents do still name children but in the context of the book, the only child we know of — Caraway, the child of the poetry teacher and Song Book — is destined for tragedy. The hard part is coming to grips with how a work that seems so autobiographical could lack cohesion. Yet that is the beauty of “Sayonara, Gangsters.” Most of it doesn’t make sense. Just like real life.
Life in this novel is messed up. One day our protagonist is enjoying life with his wife and ultra-literate cat Henry IV, and the next he’s discussing poetry with ancient Greek poet Virgil, who has been reincarnated as a refrigerator. It is absurd, but then you read about how the author was a post-World War II activist in Japan and was thrown in prison for six months, which caused him to develop aphasia (a speech and language disorder most often associated with stroke patients). As part of his rehab, he began to write. The style of the novel, originally publish in 1982, begins to make more sense. Think about it: What would your writing look like if words no longer made sense?
After I give the speech about understanding, I add, “Don’t lose it and make sure I get it back.” The book is not impossible to get. I’m looking at the Amazon link for it right now. You can get a copy but you have to either specifically seek it out or have it land in your hands by accident.
Or perhaps it is fate. Poet, novelist and critic Robert Penn Warren said that we don’t choose stories, they choose us. Somewhere, “Sayonara, Gangsters” is ready to choose another reader.
Tranchell recently released his debut horror novel. He hopes you’ll read it and maybe it will become your favorite book. If you want to talk about it, reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.