Ransom (1985) by Jay McInerney
Somehow Japan or Japanese-influenced themes keeps popping up in these reviews, but here it goes. Back in February we took a look at the debut novel Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney, which thrust the author into literary celebrity after its release in August 1984. Not only was the novel a hit with the majority of book reviewers, its popularity spread throughout the public, and film rights were quickly optioned with famous young actors seeking to the play the protagonist’s role. The literary world thus wondered what would come next from the ink of McInerney, who was just about to enter his thirties. McInerney, however, already had a sophomore effort in the making, and a little over a year later in September 1985, Vintage published Ransom. But unlike his first work, this work had mixed reviews, which some believe lead to his work not taking off like those of his contemporary Bret Easton Ellis.
I find Ransom to be a decent work, but looking over some of the reviews of the time, it seems that some critics felt that McInerney had taken a step backwards after the blistering energy of Bright Lights, Big City. Is there some validity to their criticism? Yes, although there’s some background information that might explain away some of their concerns. The fact is that McInerney actually started Ransom before he began expanding his New Yorker story “It’s Six A.M. Do You Know Where You Are” into the Bright Lights, Big City. Much of McInerney’s early material has autobiographical elements, and his second novel actually uses experiences from the mid-to-late 1970s that occurred before he became known as the quintessential Manhattan writer of the 1980s. One complaint from a reviewer was that it was trying to be too serious without the verve of his first novel. This was likely deliberate as the protagonist of Ransom, Christopher Ransom, comes at life with an entirely different perspective than does the unnamed protagonist of Bright Lights, Big City.
Ransom takes place primarily in 1977 Kyoto, Japan, though there are interspersed flashbacks to events in 1975 on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border that the reader will eventually see as part of the cause in making Ransom the man he is in 1977. Unlike the protagonist of his first novel, Ransom is found to be seeking an inner peace rather than fueled excitement. This is not say that he isn’t ambitious. Ransom is a student of karate at a dojo, where the sensei was at first hesitant to teach a gaijin; he longs to improve his skills, and thus reach the level of attaining a black belt. However, his goals are more spiritual than material. We see him as a man on an internal quest, and whether he’s striving toward or running away from something, or perhaps a combination of both, we’re with him until the dramatic conclusion.
Interestingly, the story doesn’t just revolve around internal conflict. Ransom has to deal with the bullying and increasing aggressiveness of a character named DeVito, a man who seeks to best Ransom as the most skilled Western martial artist in the city. Also, Ransom gets caught up in an attempt to save a Vietnamese refugee, who is the lover of a brash Texan friend, from an obsessive Yakuza member, or so he thinks as the narrative treads on. Finally, we get an emotional showdown between Ransom and his father, a man whom is distant but ever-present in Ransom’s consciousness.
Although one appreciates the engrossing nature of the narrative, one can see a potential problem with Ransom. There are just so many things happening to Christopher Ransom, that at times it seems overwhelming. It’s to be admitted that the novel is longer and paints a wider canvas than Bright Lights, Big City; however, the reader ends up feeling less sorry for Ransom than he or she does for the protagonist in McInerney’s first novel, even though Ransom is less at fault for the troubles he encounters. To be honest, at times, I felt more interested in the learning more about the backstory of DeVito, even though he is a rather vile character. I was thinking there has to be story more to this person than just being a one-note villain. I entertained similar thoughts about a number of the secondary characters. The novel is a story of redemption, but when you later learn about Ransom’s possible past mistakes, you wonder if he’s being a bit melodramatic in his attempts to find himself in Japan. What happened in the past was awful, but all involved were adults, and thus it seems a little ridiculous for Ransom to bear the entire burden of guilt.
Perhaps, it’s unfair to compare this work too much with Bright Lights, Big City. In terms of form and narrative, it’s a leap from his preceding work; not a leap backwards nor one forwards, but one sideways to a more conventional novel. A highlight is the detailed description of the martial arts. It shows that McInerney actually spent time in Japan learning Karate rather than gathering crumbs from the contemporary cultural landscape that was obsessed with anything that came from the land of the rising sun. I don’t know if it influenced the reception of the novel, but at the time, The Karate Kid was still riding the waves of the big splash it made in cinemas (released a year prior to Ransom). The Karate Kid is a good film, but compared to Ransom, in terms of martial arts knowledge, it seems somewhat slight. What makes The Karate Kid more delightful is that we want to cheer Daniel-san on to victory in overcoming his emotional difficulties and defeating the bullies. He has heart as does his mentor Mr. Miyagi. I believe that Christopher Ransom has determination, but I’m hesitant to say that he has heart. I don’t believe that he is supposed to have heart as written, but him not having it makes the reader less sympathetic to the predicaments that he finds himself in. Still, give this slice-of-nostalgia a shot, and then decide if you want to follow where McInerney goes next.