Hawai‘i takes place in the political vacuum of a recently deceased, nine-term United States Senator. With the formerly entrenched system of good-ol-boy mainland US sinecure up in the air, and Hawai‘i becoming a place where their best and brightest are forced to leave in order to thrive; and a collection of local characters who remain - on convergent paths aiming to improve their lot and their vision of Hawai‘i’s future.
The story is told primarily from the perspective of these characters—Russell Lee, a Hawaiian state senate president; Kekoa Meyer, a smart, middle-aged Hawaiian thug; Makana Irving-Kekumu, a Hawaiian studies professor and activist; and Sean Hayashi, a young real-estate developer. These four unique individuals from vastly different backgrounds, who all have great personal ambition, in essence ultimately want the same thing despite their conflicting views on how to get there and the impact it will have.
The crux of the story revolves around the potential development of a resort-like property near Kahuku by a billionaire Chinese casino mogul. Lee, who is racked by gambling debts, goes “all-in” with the project to cover his obligations and serve as his launching pad to the Governor’s office. The rest of the main cast provide varying outlooks of the support, opposition, backdoor politics and cutthroat competition involved in a potential billion-dollar real-estate deal and legislative gamble that could potentially change the face of Hawai‘i. Local gang leader forms an interesting counterpoint to Lee – equally opportunistic and ruthless in his own way; covering his actions with a veneer of Hawai-ian community credentials (just a Lee talks up the Chinese deal in terms of financial and cultural benefits to Hawai-i).
This is the kind of book that, despite its size, once picked up is difficult to put down. The story and all its complementary pieces are so enthralling—full of insider deals, backstabbing, and genuine local-boy moments that are described brilliantly by Panek. One of the things this book does really well, and in some ways sadistically so, is the scathing undressing of people living in and visiting Hawai‘i. Whether it’s the prissy Niu Valley religious girl with a kinky secret; the union-protected local-Japanese state-worker-lifer; or some trust-fund, Reyn Spooner Aloha shirt wearing California haole; the observations are plentiful, brutally honest, and viciously humorous in their meticulous portrayal. Maybe they are a bit stereotypical, and it’s all in the eye of the beholder, but they’re so accurate in the minute details that you can’t help but smirk, even if it’s describing you.
There is also a deep cast of well-fleshed supporting characters, and the book works extremely well when all of these people interact with one another, slowly discovering each others’ strengths, weaknesses and desires. Ambitious in scope, Hawai‘i takes on a wide-range of people, social structures and topics, either directly or through keen commentary. From the power of the Mormon influence in Hawai’i, to the mainland millionaires who raise property values on their second-or-third Hawai‘i homes, to the UH football obsession that blinds them from the sinister plots happening in their own backyard, to Hawaiian rights activists who forgo success and money to take principled yet doomed stands against developments, Panek skillfully brings the many troubled facets of New Hawai‘i together into a coherent and thrilling story.
Mark Panek has often been to compared to Tom Wolfe in his depiction of corporate a/immorality (note ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’) and indeed here Panek has truly crafted an epic tale painting Hawai‘i as a flawed Eden, a paradise with scars dug deep into the land. The book is unafraid to dig into the scabs, re-open the wounds, and show the colour of the blood inside. It’s a story encompassing power, revealing the racial tensions, socioeconomic disparity, outsider influences, and local-boy politics that control the land they live on.
As such, I am much more minded to compare his writing to James Elroy – in the way in which Elroy brings together seemingly impossibly complex plot arcs with characters who may or may not be fictional to show us the seedy side of the American Dream (note ‘American Tabloid’ and ‘The Cold Six Thousand’).
That said, this is not a novel without flaws. Panek sets himself up with a narrative of characters with wildly different agendas, leading to interspersed plot lines that keep pushing forward in a complex but never confusing power play. Yet, for a 580 page work the pay off is a little too flat: after a dramatic build up regarding the all-important passing of a contentious Gambling bill to allow a massive development occur and propel Lee to the Governorship, we are left with a handful of pages that tie up some loose ends, ignore others and leave some hanging – all narrated by a bit player in the rest of the novel. The final scene, against this too-convenient ending, loses what should have been the ultimate denouement of the novel – political, social, economic and personal.
Ultimately though a well written, thoughtful and affecting novel that, whilst focusing on the denigration of Hawai’s paradise and it’s indigenous people by global corporate forces, is a parable of a new form of colonisation happening across the globe – from aborigines, to native Americans, from Inuit to disenfranchised local communities everywhere…
In leaving arguably the most isolated state in the USA, I take the six-hour non-stop flight from Honolulu to Alaska – another contender for the most isolated state: also separated from the US (by land), but also from the global tourist developments plaguing Hawai’i. Having read the first few chapters of the book ‘The Wild Inside’ by Jamey Bradbury, one gets a sense of the Alaskan wilderness as the end of the world, untouched by the dubious attentions of globalisation…