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.