Adachi's novel isn't socks
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
The Island of Bicycle Dancers
By Jiro Adachi
St. Martin's Press, 230 pp, 22.95 dollars
Jiro Adachi has obviously taken the creative writing maxim "write what you know" to heart. It is therefore not surprising that the bike messenger, English teacher and native New Yorker's first novel is concerned mainly with the lives of bike messengers and non-English speaking immigrants in the Big Apple. The surprising part is what a terrific book Adachi has produced with The Island of Bicycle Dancers.
The story centers around Yurika, a half-Japanese, half-Korean young woman born and raised in Kawasaki who has been sent to New York to work in her Korean uncle's corner store and learn English. Having fallen in with the wrong crowd in Japan--mainly out of boredom--and flunking out of a few junior colleges, the directionless Yurika has been sent overseas to get her act together.
The offspring of a Hungarian mother and a Japanese father, Adachi has some firsthand knowledge of the cultural identity issues faced by those like Yurika who grow up straddling a cultural divide. Yurika has been raised Japanese and her father hides his Korean ethnicity to avoid discrimination. Arriving in New York, Yurika's wholly unlikeable and inhospitable aunt, Hyun Jeong, insists on calling her by her Korean name and generally treats her either as a burden or an indentured servant.
Yurika's American-born cousin Suzie, a promiscuous party girl, welcomes the new arrival with open arms, teaching her enough English to gossip about Yurika's crush on Hector, a handsome Hispanic bike courier.
Yurika also learns English from Whitey, another bike messenger, who falls hard for her and shows her the New York outside her aunt and uncle's Little Asia neighborhood.
The love triangle of Whitey, Yurika and Hector provides the main thrust that moves the plot along, but the closely linked themes of personal liberation and community provide the wheels.
Throughout the novel, Adachi shows us characters who have set themselves free. Whitey has dropped out of college and turned his back on his family's expectations to pursue his dreams of traveling and writing. Suzie reinvents herself as an English teacher. The idea of the United States as a nation of immigrants, the land of opportunity, the place to make a fresh start and create a new self is constantly in the background of Adachi's New York.
For Yurika, learning English is the key to becoming a new person. It is also the key to shedding the dead weight of her complicated family history and becoming a member of the bike messenger tribe, one of several communities Adachi presents us with here as alternatives to family.
The messengers watch out for each other, enforce their own code of conduct and pursue their own goals. New York's ethnic neighborhoods are shown in much the same way--tight-knit social networks that look after their own. Wealth is reckoned in terms of friendship, respect within the community and the joy taken in pursuing one's dreams.
Hyun Jeong is one of the villains of the novel, an immigrant who has never tried to learn the language, a grasping, hypercritical harpy who generally makes her husband, stepdaughter and niece miserable. She has no friends and doesn't seem to want any. Hector, too, closes himself off from the rest of the group and suffers the consequences.
The author's experience teaching English as a second language has clearly given him a taste of the immigrant experience and, as clearly evidenced here, an ear for the expressiveness and color of the English language--broken, slang, patois and otherwise.
Yurika learns the evocative street slang of the bike messengers, words like "badass" and "kickin'" and the all-important expression "up yours." From Suzie, she gets vocabulary lists and pronunciation drills that show off the sensual nature of the language. Adachi also throws in the occasional humorous malapropisms ESL teachers inevitably hear from their students, as when Yurika complains, "My English is socks."
While the constant use of the bicycle as a symbol of freedom becomes repetitive by the novel's end and the significance of the final scene, in which a set of training wheels are removed from a child's bike, is beyond obvious, The Island of Bicycle Dancers has all the fluid grace, speed, sweat, muscle and guts of a fixed gear racer without any needless ornamentation or chrome. It is a simple machine that transports us while letting us see some interesting things along the way.
"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"
Monday, August 09, 2004
Adachi's novel isn't socks