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Another strange tale from east of the river

by Stephen Mansfield

River Road: a Novel of Six Stories, by Hillel Wright. Printed Matter Press, 2012, 146 pp., $15.00 (hardcover)

Writer Hillel Wright’s seedbed of ideas, fertilized in the work of American giants like Ken Kesey, Tom Wolfe and William Burroughs, also owes something to the English sci-fi writer Michael Moorcock.

On the fringes of the main plot are allusions to the criminal underworld, psychic transports and elements of the supernatural. The complex narrative incorporates stories within stories, some incidental enough to flare and fizzle, others gaining more grist and body. At times, the narrative can seem experimental in its casual connection to form and development and the free riffing of text, but the digressions and structural freedoms are always fruitful.

“River Road” consists of seven inter-linked stories that can be read independently or in the wholeness of a novel. Much of Wright’s fiction is set in the affluent districts on the Tokyo side of the Tamagawa River, an area where those who enjoy an almost Babylonian wealth are only a stone’s throw away from the blue tarpaulin shelters of the impecunious, who make the riverbank their home.

It is only natural that the author, a globetrotter and former member of a fishing crew, should invoke the far corners of the earth. In this picaresque work, water plays a significant role, the tidal forces of surf and rivers the book’s metronomic pulse. Wright takes us on a search for a missing mother, presumed dead, but strongly sensed by her daughter, Angelica Akahoshi, to be of this earth. As Wright demonstrates, odysseys in fiction are not necessarily epic or even heroic. Witness William Boyd’s recent novel, “Any Human Heart,” for example, is a tale as much about futilities as advances in life.

There is attention to detail in Wright’s work that is almost scientific. When he talks about depleted catches at Japanese fishing ports, he also talks about shoals of pelagic copepods and diatoms. When he gets on to yachts, be ready for the nomenclature of chrome-plated fairleads, chocks and cleats.

In this respect, the writer’s methods resemble the poetic empiricism of Kenji Miyazawa, for whom water was not simply liquid, but a compound of oxygen and hydrogen.

Information supplements are sometimes necessary in novels. One thinks of Jonathan Franzen’s “The Twenty-Seventh City,” where the author provides the reader with a map of St. Louis. The genealogies of the characters and family members in Wright’s work are complex, but you won’t lose the thread of relationships, as reminders, like musical refrains, appear throughout the book. He even includes a family tree of the main players, in the manner of John Galsworthy’s “The Forsyte Saga.”

Evanescence, a lovely word, but with portentous implications, stalks the novel. Angelica even quotes from the Tibetan Bodhisattva Milarepa, where it is said, “Acquisitions end in dispersion, buildings in destruction, meetings in separation and births in death.” It’s a grim view of the world, but who among us could disagree with it? Ultimately, in this story the search for missing souls is more urgent than the discovery of missing persons or bodies.

Wright’s Angelica Akahoshi is a character with extraordinary gifts, one of which is telepathy, a skill for those fortunate enough to possess it, far superior to the cell phone. It is with this facility that she is able to communicate with her lost mother.

In their enthusiasm for the unlimited potential of their characters, writers are prone to creating figures without real life counterparts. Kamila Shamsie’s recent novel, “burnt shadows,” a startlingly accomplished work in which the main character, an assertive, quietly defiant women happy to throw all caution to the wind, is a case in point. Her Hiroko Tanaka may have a numbingly common name, but is quite unlike anyone we are ever likely to encounter.

In common with other books by the same author, such as “Border Town,” one senses that the characters in “River Road” have become very real to the author, taking on a life of their own. One suspects this is not the end of the preternaturally gifted Angelica Akahoshi.