That writer who aspires to be the voice of his region must hazard every imaginable pratfall and possess, in right combination, every childlike enthusiasm, love for his material, and genius -- no end of genius. The considerable risks have been felt by even the strongest writers, by William Faulkner, and, more recently, by Walker Percy, the latter once confessing to the private fear of many southern novelists: that of being only another village eccentric trying to grind out the great southern epic. But in an age glutted with safer, less ambitious novels, it is heartening to come across a serious writer willing to take the chance. This writter is John Keeble, and his novel, "Yellowfish," though uneven in its accomplishments, will stand as a powerful tribute to his region, the Pacific Northwest.
A certain strangeness is essential to beauty, and the beauty of "Yellowfish" derives in great measure from the strangeness of its design and detail. Commenting on the prose of an early explorer, Keeble could be describing his own: "His language was excessive, his nouns sheer and his verbs aggressive, Bronteesque, his words on the verge of unintelligibility and yet exact in their avocation of the massive, rebellious land." Consider, also, the plot: Wesley Erks, son of a Greek immigrant, machinist and jack-of-all-trades, owner of land in eastern Washington, husband and father, has recently come into the employ of a devious character named Lucas Tenebral and moved from running cocaine to illegal Chinese aliens, the "yellowfish" of the title. This life of casual crime runs without hitch until Erks is engaged to bring in a dangerous item, Ginarn Taam, son of Chiang Taam, a powerful but honorable member of San Francisco's Chinese community. Ginarn's return from self-imposed exile in Red China has been occasioned by his father's death, and we learn that the elder Taam, a man with ties to the old scholar-gentry class, had made many enemies, the most formidable of whom, the leaders of the triad, a sort of Chinese syndicate, have put out an order for Ginarn's death. Erks, dispatched to Vancouver to pick up Ginarn and three other aliens, is only dimly aware of the danger. He knows only that he is to drive his passengers to San Francisco and that Tenebral's wife, Lily, will be his relief driver for part of the trip.
As strange as this sounds, Keeble has successfully welded his material into a compelling and plausible adventure. He draws us into his world with his close attention to the details of how things happen and how things are done. And then he builds and sustains tension masterfully, not only the tension of the journey but also the smaller but no less significant tensions arising in everyday acts.
Keeble's ambition reaches beyond writing a suspenseful thriller though, and the smuggler's route from Vancouver to San Francisco provides the occasion for an elaborate discourse on the land -- the forests and glaciers, the orchard country, the high desert stretching from Washington to Nevada, the great rivers and mountains -- as well as its people and history. An amateur historian, Erks possesses a wealth of information, and his musings, whether they concern the folk-ways and lore of Native Americans, the travel narratives of early explorers and settlers, or the elaborate patterns of human migration, provide a kind of historical analogue to the central action deepening the significance of the journey and the developing relationship between Taam and his driver. For the story of the West is partly one of loss, misunderstanding, greed, racism and sheer human brutality, a story set against a landscape loved, feared and often violated by those who have passed through or settled on it. At times, Keeble's device seems a little forced, almost suggestive of those historical markers you occasionally see along the road, but the overall effect is enhancing.
So rich is the regional portrait that I could not help wondering at the relative thinness of the human portraits. Keeble sketches characters admirably, providing the outline and distinctive features with the sureness and speed of a good caricaturist. This talent serves well for the minor characters -- his country people are as comic and terrifying as any grotesque out of Flannery O'Connor -- but not as well for the more important ones.
The distrust of language is a central element of the western myth, many other elements of which are challenged in Keeble's portrait of his territory. The ideal of the individual, the heroic loner who prefers action to talking (a city vice), is one from which we, as a nation, continue to suffer. Sadly, this ideal remains inadequately challenged by "Yellowfish." I hope that Keeble, with his considerable talent, will return again to this central problem.