Less Than Zero
Lafcadio Hearn despaired of capturing the charm of Japan and perhaps it is the elusiveness of that quest that causes Danny Ott, the hero of Brad Leithauser’s Equal Distance, to dwell at such length on his impressions when he disembarks at Kyoto. Hearn, self-conscious about being short, felt less like a gaijin, a foreigner, in Japan than he did in the West, but Danny, a do-gooder from Harvard Law School on the Wall Street track, seems to regard being tall and fair a form of patriotism. He is nostalgic for the lost entrepreneurial spirit of America, and defends its messy democracy over the dark discipline behind the Japanese economic miracle. After all, Dad works for Ford Motor Company, and Danny often has a rush of feeling for his home town, Detroit, when he rides in a Japanese car.
Novels set in distant places give us expectations not unlike those we have of travel writing, and often the distinctions are blurred, as in, say, the way the low life of Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward is depicted in John David Morley’s recent Pictures from the Water Trade. But Equal Distance turns out to have little to say about shiken jigoku, the “examination hell” of Japanese law schools. Though Danny arrives with language tapes and good intentions about his year abroad as an assistant to a distinguished professor, the absence of the grind is an unsettling state of freedom for one who cannot remember a time when “he had not been enrolled in school.” Danny passes the hours thinking back on his life stateside, and Kyoto becomes a backdrop for a story of coming of age or finding self-knowledge, things Danny calls “progress.”
When the Handsome American is not planning ahead to his third-year paper on the “interlaced relationship of law and punishment and responsibility and free will,” he mourns his grandfather, worries about the Reagan–Carter election, the hostage crisis, the impending divorce of Mom and Dad. He also wonders why he can’t get over his first true love and whether his adolescence is “still pursuing him.”
Oh, the whole notion of manhood was an interesting issue; he had adeptly managed, as demanded of him, to refer to the girls in his classes as women, and even to think of them as such, but the guys remained guys, not men. Men for Danny were still the professors, or, less distantly, the people who came to interview from the law firms…. Men were still primarily those dapper figures who had entered the game of buying cars, trying to beat taxes, earning a living.
Brad Leithauser is a poet of remarkable delicacy and skill, yet the voice in Equal Distance seems irresolute. As a result, everything, down to the tatami mats, must have its day. Danny’s numerous asides, however sweetly intended, have much to do, too, with the shapelessness of the book. His inner weather is conveyed in passages that remind one of an alpha-rhythm trance induced by staring at a tank of…
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