September 17, 1990 12:00 PM

by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Reviled by the xenophobic Japanese because he is half white American—or part “butter-stinker” to use author Boyle’s favorite Asian put-down for Caucasians-seaman Hiro Tanaka jumps ship off the coast of Georgia. But the America he discovers in this hilarious novel by the author of Water Music is not what Tanaka had envisioned: a place full of cowboys, hookers and wild Indians, where “you could be one part Negro, two parts Serbo-Croatian and three parts Eskimo and walk down the street with your head held high.”

Instead, Tanaka lands on Tupelo Island, Ga., where racial tensions run high. Perceived by the locals as threatening, Tanaka soon finds himself pursued by agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. After days of hiding out in the woods, Tanaka stumbles on a cabin and Ruth Dershowitz, a would-be writer who is spending several weeks at an artists’ colony owned by her lover’s mother. Dershowitz secretly feeds and shelters Tanaka, partly because he provides inspiration for the story she is trying to write.

While the relationship between Ruth and Hiro is central to East Is East, it is only one of the subjects Boyle skewers. Bigotry, artistic pretension, American-Japanese relations, romance and sex also figure prominently. About the failure of his INS inquisitors to stop Tanaka’s escape, Boyle writes, “It was the American nature. They were oafs, drugged and violent and overfed, and they didn’t pay attention to detail. That’s why the factories had shut down, that’s why the automakers had gone belly up, that’s why three professional investigators could sit in an 8-by-10-foot cell for four hours and never notice that two of the bars had been pried from the window.”

The book is full of wry, black humor, but Boyle’s wit is sharpest in the sections about the artists’ colony. He lambastes it all: the readings of “works in progress.” the jockeying for position among colonists, the supercilious behavior of the owner toward her “artistes.” Boyle misses no detail, even the tendency of such places to name their cabins after dead artists. (Ruth’s is called Hart Crane; another is Diane Arbus.)

As for any thought of happy endings, in this tragicomic picaresque, Hiro Tanaka is the Candide of Tupelo Island—the foil, the straight man, the innocent abroad. As such, of course, he doesn’t stand a chance. (Viking, $19.95)

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