Facing West from California’s shores

Danny Karlin

  • Ransom by Jay McInerney
    Cape, 279 pp, £9.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 224 02355 1
  • Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
    Flamingo/Fontana, 182 pp, £2.75, April 1986, ISBN 0 00 654173 9

Lee Van Cleef! I remember him in A Fistful of Dollars, where he had the respectable native occupation of bounty hunter, and a gun (with a natty set of attachments) which came in a flap-down case. Now he is ‘starring’ in a late-night series (Mondays on Central) so awful that the TV Times is ashamed to give any programme details except its title. It’s called The Master, and Mr Van Cleef plays a ninja warrior – an adept of the black Japanese arts of espionage and assassination – who tours America righting wrongs in the company of a fresh-faced American side-kid. Here, too, Mr Van Cleef is kitted out with deadly accessories – not firearms, but ninja weapons, from sword to spiked throwing wheels (for narrowly missing people and burying in door jambs), plus of course his feet and hands. The first sight of the game old boy dealing with a roomful of rednecks in bionic slow motion made me rub my eyes. But no. Spitting Image is on the night before.

Elderly troubleshooters have tended to be just that in America – shooters. John Wayne in True Grit creaked in the saddle, aimed straight, and punched people in the usual places. He uttered platitudes, but at least they were home-grown platitudes. Why was it felt necessary to dress Mr Van Cleef in preposterous robes, issue him with a Mysterious Sign which he wears around his neck, and make him utter Oriental Wisdom?

The American thirst for authenticity is as strong as ever. Not for nothing does the world’s most successful synthetic drink advertise itself as ‘The Real Thing’. But where is ‘the real thing’ to be found? Is there an ‘American’ authenticity, a native source, or must everything be borrowed, everything imported? Bob Dylan’s ‘Union Sundown’ (Infidels, CBS, 1983) opens with a sardonic catalogue –

Now my shoes they come from Singapore
My flashlight’s from Taiwan
My tablecloth’s from Malaysia
My belt-buckle’s from the Amazon –

and voices a cry, ‘They don’t make nothing here no more,’ which applies as much to ideas as to things. Not that the idea of importing wisdom from the East is new in America. Thoreau and Whitman, both advocates of ‘stepping westward’, also took ‘passage to India’; among modern American writers, the Californian Gary Snyder has notably followed. Stepping westward from California lands you in

a school for monks of the Rinzai branch of Zen Buddhism, in Japan. The whole aim of this community was personal and universal liberation. In this quest for spiritual freedom every man marched strictly to the same drum in matters of work and meditation. In the teacher’s room one was pushed across sticky barriers into vast new spaces. The training was traditional and had been handed down for centuries – but the insights are forever fresh and new. The beauty, refinement and truly civilised quality of that life has no match in modern America.

This comes from a short prose piece in Snyder’s Turtle Island (1974), but it could just as easily – apart perhaps from its humourless tone – come from Jay McInerney’s new novel, Ransom, whose eponymous hero has fled ‘modern America’ for the ‘beauty, refinement, and truly civilised quality’ of a traditional Japanese school. Not a school for monks, but a karate school, a place of combined ‘work and meditation’ nonetheless, with a similar ‘teacher’, the sensei. Here, too, discipline is the key to harmony and self-fulfilment:

   The sensei clapped his hands and it was time to begin ... Ito led the stretching and calisthenics, the others facing him in two lines. Ransom concentrated on duplicating his every move. With years of scrupulous imitation he might gain possession of the discipline.

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