“Operatic” is the adjective that springs to mind to describe David Rain’s excessive debut, and that’s appropriate enough, given that it chronicles the tormented life of Cio-Cio-San’s son after she commits suicide at the end of “Madame Butterfly.” There are passages in the novel that have a heartbreaking beauty worthy of Puccini’s music. Unfortunately, there are also plenty of over-the-top plot twists and bizarre motivations reminiscent of early Verdi at his most plausibility-challenged.
The wry tone of narrator Woodley Sharpless’s prefatory remarks gives little hint of the melodrama to come. Casting a mocking eye over the books written about prominent American politician Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, Woodley speaks as a cynical, knowing old man. The rhapsodic notes that will ultimately swell to a shrieking final chorale begin at the end of his “overture,” just before Act One takes us back to his youth with Sen. Pinkerton’s son at a Vermont prep school.
Ben Pinkerton II still carries the nickname he received as a baby in Nagasaki: Trouble. He thinks Kate Pinkerton is his mother, but shadowy recollections of “another life, a different life” unsettle the boy, and he hates his father, though he doesn’t yet know why. He finds out in Act Two, when Cio-Cio-San’s spurned lover, Yamadori, comes to Manhattan for a baroque confrontation with Kate that sends Trouble reeling into the night.
Some opera lovers may enjoy the way Rain plays with “Madame Butterfly.” He inserts more of its characters into the increasingly frenzied action when Woodley, now a journalist, lands in Nagasaki in 1937 to find Trouble reclaiming his Japanese heritage. And the author gives Yamadori a fascinating monologue that links Japan’s resentment of American imperialism with his hatred for the American couple who destroyed his love. But by the time we get to Los Alamos on the eve of the Trinity test, it all seems fairly arbitrary. Despite the seething homoeroticism established in the prep school scenes, Woodley’s obsession with Trouble always seems more plot premise than emotional reality. The narrator’s relationship with Kate makes little sense, and her character is whipsawed between contradictory behaviors to bring about the novel’s Grand Guignol climax.
Rain is a talented writer, and “The Heat of the Sun” is never dull. Too often, however, it is simply incredible.
Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America,” which will be reissued this spring.
THE HEAT OF THE SUN
By David Rain
Henry Holt. 288 pp. $26