Tweakerville is a watershed in Hawai‘i fiction.
Tweakerville / Tweakerville
Alexei Melnick
Mutual, 2010

262 pages, $14.95

Pretty much all my family work tug boat jobs. Or they work for the city and county, work in the sun laying slabs. They work hard.

I wasn’t going to be the first guy or the last guy to take a look at the other ship, tour ship, and figure it never was meant for me. Not if you gotta act that way, bull shit every body and call it people skills. I gon talk like my gramps.

So I wasn’t gon carry luggage for tourists. I wasn’t gon park cars or mow lawns for chump change. And they can jack up the price to live here all they like, I not leaving, so they just gon have to deal with me at the other end of it. Maybe one day I gon live rent free off them in jail.

–Jesse Gomes, narrator and central character in Alexei Melnick’s debut novel, Tweakerville.

Yes, yes, we did have hanabata days back in small kid time. We did always wen grind at Rainbow Drive In. We did say “tantaran” before we had any idea what “conceited” meant. Why, then, does so much pidgin in local literature end up feeling like performance, like a self-conscious imitationg of the thing, rather than the thing itself? We get the references, we get the feeling for earlier times, but don’t get that deep sense of “yes.” That this is it, that this is the way people speak and think and talk in Hawaii today. Even when invoked in the name of pride, it all too often feels like our endemic culture is being played for laughs. And at whose expense? There’s a way that pidgin in literature, and the local narrative voice generally, can devolve into a kind of nostalgic minstrel show. That keeps us pining for those allegedly simpler bygone days, without shedding light on the way we live now. A can of SPAM instead of the real thing.

Tweakerville, the first novel from Alexei Melnick, is the real thing. Marketed–unfortunately or otherwise–as a step inside the dark heart of Hawaii’s ice epidemic, this is an astonishing exploration of a community in crisis, and of a young man’s attempt to reconcile himself to his family, and to himself.

The plot is compelling and the book difficult to put down, but the real achievement here is the searing impression left by young Jesse Gomes, whose voice lingers in the mind long after the last page drops.

Tweakerville unwinds in Jesse’s voice, one that is, from the start, breathtaking in its evocation of the rhythms and patterns of island speech and life. There’s no heavy-handedness, no nostalgia here–Jesse, and his friends, sound like us, like our neighbors and cousins and the kids on the sidewalk. And these kids, like more of those kids than we’d like to admit, are at the epicenter of the ice world. That they are not foaming at the mouth means it’s easy for us to look past them. But they’re there, all around us.

Jesse is, if not quite an everykid, then at least an anykid. Nineteen years old, and too restless to settle on a long-term plan, he lives day-to-day in a world of dealers and tweakers and assorted hard-luck characters. He also lives by a strong moral code–loyal to his friends, but most of all to himself.

Along the road to tragedy, he discovers loyalty to Kapika, who works behind the counter at a drug store. In many ways, this story is about the folks you meet in Longs but look the other way–Kapika sees Jesse and holds his gaze. The young woman is the only other character granted a narrative voice inside Tweakerville, and she, too, is written large, and wide, and true. Their love, and Jesse’s struggle to do the right thing, form the backbone of this novel.

Tweakerville is a good, good read, by any standard, with enough plot twists and turns to keep the pages flying by. There is a lot here, too, about our Hawaii–not the old one, not the next one, but this one, the one we live in now. Jesse’s encounters with his family, with cops and others call to mind all the ways good boys become bad men. That he doesn’t want to go that route, yet doesn’t know what else to do, is not only Jesse’s story, but that of so many young local men and women for whom the future holds more fear than hope.

Ultimately, Tweakerville is a portrait of an unforgettable young man stuck in inescapable circumstances, all of it limned with great talent and great care.