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Sunday, May 19, 2002

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

An unexpected transformation at English school


By MARGARET STAWOWY
RED SKY, RED DRAGONFLY, by John Galligan. Madison, Wisconsin: Diversity Incorporated, 262 pp., $14.95 (paper).

"Red Sky, Red Dragonfly," a first novel by college writing professor John Galligan, provides ample evidence that he understands the craft he teaches. A humorous and original tale spanning two continents and four cultures, this book is a winner.

At the start of the novel, protagonist Tommy Morrison is a disagreeable, belligerent man who has failed as a husband and father. However, by the book's end he has revealed himself to be a man of integrity, and is subtly, almost imperceptibly, transformed.

The story begins with Tommy's arrival in Japan as he flashes back to an ugly confrontation with his estranged Native American wife, Elaine Red Cloud. A former professional hockey player and college math professor, Tommy suffers from a bum knee and anger management problems. By the second page, he and Elaine are mired in a bickering session that will continue throughout the book via telephone.

Tommy has just been fired from his job at the college after "yooping" (slugging) a fellow professor over comments made about Tommy's sexual indiscretions with a student -- or perhaps, according to Tommy, the student's sexual indiscretions with him. Next stop: Kitayama, Japan, a rural mountain village with "international" aspirations. Tommy has just accepted a job as instructor at Prince English School because it will pay the bills during his one-year suspension. Tommy is replacing 21-year-old Stuart Norton who mysteriously disappears on his last day in Japan. Although the story concerns Stuart's disappearance, you couldn't really call "Red Sky, Red Dragonfly" a mystery. Almost everybody, foreigner and native, is too caught up in personal dramas to give Stuart much thought until the conclusion, when his disappearance is finally resolved.

Solid, three-dimensional characters inhabit the literary landscape of "Red Sky." Each of them rings true, from the local boys who use English small-talk and cliches to harass the new teacher, to the town oddball, Ono, who sold his soul to the local devil and couldn't be happier. It is a stroke of ironic genius that Ono speaks pidgin biblical English, learned in his youth from missionaries who provided a profit motive for bible study. His speech is spiked with expressions such as "thou shalt chotto matte" and "chotto try to pox me, ne." Strong female characters abound too, such as Miwa, an awkward adolescent with compassion beyond her years, the hypercritical Mama Yama and her downtrodden daughter-in-law, Noriko.

It is with Noriko, manager of Prince English School, that Tommy has the obligatory cross-cultural sex, though it's through her initiative, not his. Actually, he's still in love with the tough, smart, hard-drinking Elaine in spite of their marital discord. He also loves Gus, his delinquent son who runs away from Black Mesa Pottery Camp, a Native American alternative school for out-of-control youths.

Gus and his Native American grandfather then blaze a credit-card trail from Southern California to Japan where they meet up with Tommy. Why is grandpa acting so strangely? Tommy wonders. Because he had to ingest his grandson's marijuana stash to avoid detection at customs, that's why. Grandpa's bizarre behavior, Gus's impulsiveness and Tommy's desire to do the right thing mark their madcap tour of Hiroshima. This is just one of the numerous strands that make up the multicultural and satisfying weave of "Red Sky."

Galligan takes on serious issues such as love, prejudice and intolerance while maintaining a transparent and fluid quality in his writing. He's irreverent and humorous, though never mean-spirited or patronizing.

The title alludes to a song, superficially simple but resonant with meaning, that is sung in the novel. Like the song, the novel resonates with straightforward, but finely developed, characters, plot, and motivation. In addition, it is refreshingly lacking in the sanctimonious and exotic trappings that decorate so many other novels of this genre. "Red Sky, Red Dragonfly" is a refreshing and unexpected surprise.



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