Although it may come as a surprise to the rest of America, people from Hawaii also feel the urge to get away from it all–even the inhabitants of a paradise theme park can get bored. Driven by “rock fever,” economic need or ambition, they leave the islands, and one of their favorite destinations is Las Vegas, which receives thousands of Hawaii gamblers on packaged tours each year. Others retire there to escape the prohibitively high cost of living at home, where cereal, milk and other staples cost fully twice as much as on the mainland.

Sonia Kurisu, the wise-talking heroine cruising for a breakdown in Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Father of the Four Passages, has been trying for seven years to complete her bachelor of fine arts at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, while supporting herself as Tiger Lily Wong, the lounge singer. She could perfectly well have done this back home, where there are universities and no lack of opportunities in the sleazy clubs of Waikiki or Hilo, her hometown, where her mother’s a hostess in a golf-course bar. But Sonia had dreams of broader horizons, inspired in part by her wandering father, an MIT grad who for twenty years has sent poetic letters to his daughter from Amsterdam, Italy, China and Thailand, about how little girls remind him of Sonia and his love for her. (He just can’t be with her!) However, bad boyfriends and a serious drug and alcohol habit have impeded her academic progress, and the book opens with her latest challenge: single motherhood.

It’s a terrible shock. Sonia’s breasts are engorged and painful, and she’s angered by the crying of the baby, Sonny Boy. “I hit his face, squeeze his cheeks inside my closing palms. Distort his cry with my hands on his face and throat, until the sound makes me laugh.” His baby bottles and dirty diapers lie strewn around with the adults’ mess, “warm beer in tilting bottles, a glass of merlot with lip-gloss rainbows on its surface, Percodan and Prozac strewn on the countertop, glass pipes, amber vials, burnt pieces of tinfoil,” with mom’s lover, Drake, “passed out on the futon in the arms of a girl/boy drug friend.”

Sonia regrets having borne Sonny Boy, excoriates herself for her decision, motivated by religious guilt over past abortions: “I vanished three babies. A hospital’s toxic-waste bin, a dirty toilet at Magic Island, and a jelly jar buried outside my bedroom window.” At the same time, she feels ashamed and scared by her rages, and desperately wants to be a good mother; she just doesn’t know how. For this she blames her own mother, Grace, who “vanished” 12-year-old Sonia and her sister from Hilo to live with their grandmother in a Honolulu slum. Instead of the absolution Sonia hoped for, though, the baby’s birth summons the ghosts of her three unborn sons, whom she calls Number One, Number Two (Turtle Boy) and Jar. She sees and hears them everywhere, outside her window, in the laundromat. They want to know who their fathers are. They seem to want to live.

Wallowing in self-pity, abusing drugs, booze and her child, Sonia, a heroine for our times, does not lack appeal. We see, in flashback chapters, where she comes from and what she’s been up against, and we root for her as an underdog who’s scrabbling for a second chance. Which seems a distant prospect: For a time, all that stands between Sonia, Sonny and disaster is their neighbor Bob, an unemployed black Vietnam veteran who seems to have moved in the day of the baby’s birth, and who provides free and loving baby care, and grocery and laundry services, while Sonia works and occasionally goes to school. After she kicks out Drake and his girl/boy friend, Bob keeps watch in her apartment by night. They are joined by her platonic friend Mark, who helped her abort two of the fetuses (not his–he and Sonia weren’t lovers) and who also came to Nevada for college. Mark and Bob clean the apartment and try to keep Sonia off the drugs and booze and out of her destructive relationship with Drake.

Yamanaka is one of the most prominent members of the so-called Asian literary mafia of Bamboo Ridge, the Hawaii journal that first published her work and that of others who wrote in pidgin, the language of plantation laborers. Yamanaka’s fiction falls short of the beautiful craftsmanship of her peers Gary Pak and Sylvia Watanabe and of the mythical allusiveness of Nora Ojka Keller’s work.What sets Yamanaka apart, though, is her lack of cultural nostalgia and her avoidance of gentility, as if she sprang fully formed from the head of Milton Murayama, along with his 1959 classic All I Asking for Is My Body. Her plot moves outward from the small palette to the large: Although devout herself, in her fashion, Sonia also sees through and rails about the pretensions of her religious, self-righteous family, who leave bossy messages on her answering machine. At one point, her whole Hawaii clan converges in Las Vegas for a religious convention, including her yuppie big sister Celeste, a leader of a Hawaii Right to Life Coalition chapter and so much else. The sisters grew up in divergent socioeconomic spheres: Celeste tested into Punahou School, the elite private prep academy founded by New England missionaries in 1841; but “slow-minded” Sonia, who could never make the grade, went to one of the tough public high schools, Farrington. Every day, they’d take the bus with the other “Kalihi Valley working-class poor,” and “Celeste would hop off…one block before the manicured school grounds. She didn’t want to be seen with Granny Alma, a lowly custodian.”

Another friend from home–handsome but troubled Jacob, the father of Number Two–comes through Vegas after his own drug habit derails him from the track to an astronomy degree. Sonia’s dad, Joseph, drops in as well, to see his grandson. “Something’s wrong,” he says when he observes the boy. As Sonny Boy grew, he stopped screaming and Sonia stopped punishing him. But he also grew real quiet, and still isn’t talking as his second birthday comes and goes. He repeatedly lines up his toy cars, sorted by color. He pounds his head on the floor. He’s fascinated by his fingers. He spins. When he’s diagnosed as autistic, Sonia first reacts as if it’s all about her–that what she’d seen as her vehicle of redemption for past sins is actually her punishment from God. A visit from Drake precipitates an overdose, and she wakes in the hospital to find her mother by her bed, trying to mother her far too late, in Sonia’s opinion. The whole extended family forcesher to move back to Honolulu with Sonny Boy, where Celeste books appointments with autism specialists.

Yamanaka remains a wonderful comic writer, producing perfect-pitch satire of Celeste’s cultivated Punahou speechand frequent lapses into local tita tantrums. Continuing the exposé of local prejudices that’s run through all of Yamanaka’s novels, there are wonderful passages in which the Japanese-American grandma, mother and aunties, based on knowledge gleaned from Oprah, Rain Man and the like, blame Sonia’s lifestyle for Sonny Boy’s condition. They point to her association with the kuro-chan, or black person. They say it’s Sonia’s bachi, the evil she’s brought on herself for the sin of “murdering” abortion. Still, they begin to cheer up as they litanize the celebrities afflicted with autistic children: Stallone, Father Mulcahy from M*A*S*H, Dan Marino, Doug Flutie, etc. “And I read in Newsweek or maybe Time that Albert Einstein and Bill Gates were autistic,” Grace says.

For the most part, Yamanaka continues to pull back from the racism she exposed in Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre and Blu’s Hanging (the depiction of a Filipino stereotype in the latter caused her to lose an Asian-American literary award; she nevertheless has won other awards, including one from the Lannan Foundation), though she continues to confront class issues head-on. Many of the themes in Father of the Four Passages extend those in her previous work: sibling rivalry; silent and traumatized little children; struggling and battling parents; tough, compulsive sex; loud, bad Japanese girls spurning the cultural mores of modesty, education, respect for elders and upward mobility. After essentially rewriting the same story in many ways, in this book she’s busted out–and leaving the island venue seems to have refreshed Yamanaka’s work. It’s also–remarkably for a writer renowned for her fluency in local argot–her first book not written, or spoken, predominantly in pidgin. Everybody here speaks the King’s English, more or less. “Both of you denied your eyes nothing they desired, refused your heart no pleasure. What futility it all was. What chasing after the wind. I’ve just quoted Ecclesiastes, mind you,” says Celeste. Some of the stiltedness of the dialogue can be attributed to her characters’ pretensions, but Yamanaka often stumbles as well, particularly during climactic scenes, as when Sonia unearths Jar from their Hilo backyard in order to cremate the fetus. Her father says, “Three babies. Oh, Sonia, what have you done?” And she replies with words he’s said to her before: “Daddy, you were right. True freedom is holding on and seizing–” “Seizing what?” “Love–no matter the cost or ferocity of that love.” There are too many such maudlin, confrontational speeches, a tendency toward in-your-face summarizing that has encumbered this author’s earlier books as well. There’s also some over-the-top sentimentalism: a confusion of Bob with some kind of angel as Sonia communicates with him telepathically, and a misguided flirtation with magic realism, including one fetus mailing her a gift of blue silk cloth.

The occasional overexplicitness and unevenness in dialogue are themselves outweighed, however, by several moving aspects of the novel. There’s the fine portrayal of Sonny Boy and his autism, which rings true, and the ways different members of the family, from his little cousin to his grandfather and Jacob, tenderly relate to him; we observe how he helps them heal themselves. In Heads by Harry, a baby’s birth solves all the problems in an easy, obvious way, bonding the jolly family; in Father of the Four Passages it happens with far more struggle, ambiguity and risk.

Yamanaka pulls back from the shallow, sitcom surfaces of Heads and dives deep. More than in her other books, images–the remembered Hilo rain on hot pavement, the thousand gilded-paper origami good-luck cranes that hover around Number One–link throughout, building into metaphors and registering emotional impact. Images spring from her father’s childhood stories and his effete but often beautiful letters–he plants flowers and sends her descriptions of them from all over the world. With a description of the window boxes of Amsterdam, he once sent a copy of Anne Frank’s diary, which motivated 8-year-old Sonia to finally learn to read, saving her from special ed. A story he told his children about hatching sea turtles and a Hawaiian fisherman gives Turtle Boy his name. The color blue in the midnight sky above Las Vegas is also a theme in her father’s letters, as is the color of the liquid that surrounds the fetus Jar. In Heads by Harry, the daughter of a Hilo taxidermist and hunter falls in love with the rainforests along the flank of the volcano; in Father, Sonia is drawn to the sea and to the barren, pure moonscape of the volcano’s top. In both books, nature provides the absolution and calm that Yamanaka’s troubled urban characters yearn for.

For a social critic, which is what Yamanaka really is, the choice of Las Vegas is fitting in many ways; the place is an apt metaphor for the yearning and frustration of Hawaii’s working poor. It gives them a chance to be tourists in a desert Waikiki. The biggest lure, of course, is gambling, the chance to be a high roller, to actually win for a change. Many Kanaka Maoli, or Native Hawaiians, have immigrated to Nevada as well as California, Oregon and Washington; the 2000 census shows that populations of Pacific Islanders and Asians in Nevada has climbed to 98,692 from 38,127 in 1990. And back home, gambling has long been a subtext in the ongoing debate over Kanaka Maoli sovereignty; as has been reported, lobbyist Tommy Boggs has been helping the Office of Hawaiian Affairs plan to get gambling on Hawaiian lands. First, of course, Hawaiians have to get their lands–a process set back by the recent Supreme Court holding in Rice v. Cayetano, which has put all Hawaiian blood entitlements on the defensive. And many Hawaiian leaders are leery of the social ills that gambling would bring. If Hawaii, or a Hawaiian nation within a nation, gets legalized gambling, then girls like Sonia will be able to find plenty of bachi at home.

At the other end of the spectrum from Las Vegas sits another powerful metaphor: snowcapped Mauna Kea, the highest mountain in the world, if you’re measuring from the bottom of the blue Pacific, which rings the Big Island that its eruptions made. The extinct volcano is iconographic in Hawaiian culture, a symbol in songs and chants of motherhood, purity and home. It’s here that Sonia climbs with her father, Jacob and her son to scatter the ashes of Jar and bring him, and his aborted brothers, peace. In this last scene, above the treeline and in the rare Hawaiian snow, the sentiment works. For the rest, Yamanaka’s cold-eyed realism is enough, and readers should revel in her unsparing view of lowlife in contemporary Hawaii, a side the Hawaii Visitors Bureau doesn’t want shown. You’ve got to give Yamanaka, and her characters, credit for their compulsion to go straight where no one wants to go, and fight their way back out.