Mililani Mauka

Chris McKinney takes a big leap, from skid row to the suburbs. Can he pull it off?

Mililani Mauka / Mililani Mauka

Chris McKinney

Mutual Publishing Honolulu, 2009 2l7 pages, $l2.95

Chris McKinney is a good writer–and a lucky one, too. He already has his persona myth in place. He’s the one who writes about the “other” Hawaii, the one with the poverty, broken dreams, violence, prisons, strip-bars and homelessness. McKinney’s island inflections and idioms ring as true as anything yet written about the ironies (make that realities) of life. He is, to put it vulgarly, a brand-name writer who knows what’s coming down but doesn’t turn away. And yet his books sell decently. His work (this is his fourth novel) wins prestigious awards, and it’s said that Jason Scott Lee wants to direct a film version of one of those books.

But that was then, and this is now. Mililani Mauka is McKinney’s most ambitious project to date, and he carries it off. Borderline existence and its extremes, where his previous work was firmly fixed, might, in fact, be easier to write about than mainstream lives with their glorified tract homes, marriage and children, community college educations, karaoke and all the rest of that bland ambience of the ’burbs.

“Marriage is the only adventure open to cowards,” wrote Flaubert, and McKinney has therefore pulled off an adventure novel, in which infidelity is thematically central. His characters are flawed but sympathetic: we understand even as we might deplore them. There is no greater emotional labyrinth than marriage, no greater pain than a failed marriage or the loss of a child or a spouse. As a writer, McKinney offers no judgments and makes us suspend some of our own.

If this book had a subtitle, it might be something like “the search for home.” That search for the center proves elusive in Mililani Mauka, whether in a subdivision or a homeless shelter or an encampment on the coast of Waianae.

“Home is the place where when you go there they have to take you in,” wrote Robert Frost; and, at one time or another, every major character has no place to go, no one to take them in, regardless. Finding home, re-defining the word “love,” making peace with the ghosts of the past–these are the tasks of this dense, deftly interwoven novel about two families that also have to come to terms with each other. And above all this hangs, like thickening clouds, the threat of imminent violence.

In fact, the book’s prologue begins with an act of violence we do not fully understand until the novel ends. At six o’clock one morning, a man we do not know aims his fortified Komatsu bulldozer at the Mililani Town Center, flattening part of its entrance and attacking a Wal-Mart store, wreaking considerable damage. He has personal weaponry, as well, which finally means a kind of shoot-out with police, with our mysterious bulldozer driver losing his life. It’s an incident that puts this ambitious and fully-realized novel into motion.

And so we meet the six-degrees-of-separation characters: a community college instructor who purchases the dead man’s house for his wife and child; the dead man’s widow and son who end up in a Waianae Coast encampment; A police officer (the one who fatally shot the bulldozer driver) who tries to care for the dead man’s son; a posse of subdivision denizens, who hover about functioning as a kind of Greek chorus; we even “meet” the dead man himself. We learn some of the secrets of this multi-ethnic group of people, particularly of the sexual infidelities of four of these alienated but interlocked residents of Mililani, which, the book tells us, does not “look like Hawaii.”

This is the kind of book it does not do to synopsize: surprise is a major element in this story of people almost anyone in Hawaii will recognize as authentic. If you’ve read McKinney before, you will not be surprised by the sometimes superb, meticulous descriptions of Hawaii culture.

In short, Chris McKinney has got us nailed but good. We, like McKinney’s characters, must face up to complex realities–some of them problems, some dilemmas here in the New Hawaii.