Hiro Tanaka, a twenty-year-old devotee of Yukio Mishima and Jocho, thinks of himself as a samurai, even though he is half American. Anxious to leave Japan to discover his unknown father, he takes a job in the kitchen of a Japanese freighter, where he has to defend himself against racial slurs during his trip to the U.S. Jumping overboard to escape, he swims ashore to swampy Tupelo Island, off the coast of Georgia, hoping eventually to make his way to the City of Brotherly Love.
Tupelo is the site of Thanatopsis, an artists' colony similar to the McDowell Colony, and Ruth Dershowitz, a writer in residence there, refuses to believe the stories circulated by the ship and by INS that Hiro is a dangerous criminal and potential murderer. When she discovers him, she begins feeding him and protecting him against the yahoos who are trying to apprehend him.
Boyle uses this absurd scenario to create farce-like humor, satirizing the characters' inherent prejudices and their unrealistic goals and expectations. Hiro must protect himself against INS, a trigger-happy lunatic assisting INS, a posse of rednecks engaged in the chase, and even some of the residents of Thantopsis, the name of which is a black-humored reference to the Greek word for "death." Ruth, who is having an affair with the wealthy son of the founder of Thanatopsis, sees Hiro as the possible subject for a story, and she is outraged when a movie star-like writer, who once studied with her, arrives to steal Ruth's thunder by flirting with the men, giving a reading that the residents love, and sneering at Ruth.
Boyle's dark humor is delicious, and his pointed satire of the writers' colony, in particular, is priceless--the egos, the homage expected by established writers, the ceremony of the readings, the ritual of "silent table" vs. the "convivial table" at breakfast, the esoteric nature of some of the research subjects, and even the goofing off by the "artists." Hiro's only exposure to American society--the residents of Thanatopsis, the wealthy benefactors who have built compounds on the island, the impoverished rednecks and blacks who live off the land, and the INS and police officers who chase and arrest him--is obviously skewed, and his miscommunications and misunderstandings, even with Ruth, are both poignant and hilarious.
Filled with unexpected plot twists, brilliant and unique imagery, and ironies which evolve from the conflict between romantic dreams and sometimes harsh reality, the novel looks sharply at the characters' lives and inherent values and offers a sardonic wink. Mary Whipple