A new novel wonders what happens
when a genius runs out of options
The star of Michael Antman's debut novel, Cherry Whip (ENC Press, $17.95), is Hiroshi, a Japanese jazz phenom fawned over by students and old pros alike. And yet, there's this moment in the beginning of the story when he arrives in New York and is entranced by, of all things, a hardware store.
It's an experience, Antman says, that comes directly from a time when a visiting Nipponese friend—in Chicago with his bride for their honeymoon—disappeared for an afternoon and returned having spent the entire time marveling at American screwdriver sets.
"My friend had such an incredible avidity and curiosity about life and new experiences, and was somewhat eccentric," he says. "I wanted to take a character like that and see what happens when he runs into a brick wall."
That brick wall springs up in front of Hiroshi less than 50 pages into the novel. As soon as he lands in America, he finds himself becoming increasingly lethargic and clumsy. Sidewalk cracks trip him up, and he becomes disoriented easily, even leaving a valuable clarinet at a hot-dog stand. He sleeps through his first rehearsal for his American debut, and when he awakens, he finds he's paralyzed from the neck down.
Hiroshi spends a harrowing time lying on the floor of his hotel room, barely able to vocalize above a whisper. He eventually makes it to the hospital, where he is diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a temporary but debilitating illness that leaves him with little to no feeling below his neck. Over the course of the novel, Hiroshi recovers and trains his muscles to function properly again. But in the meantime, the book becomes a study in foreignness—not only because Hiroshi is a stranger in America, but also in his own body.
Compounding Hiroshi's adjustment fatigue is a bizarre romantic relationship with a music student and worries over his father's hovering concern.
Antman, 51, a Caucasian Chicago native, seems about as foreign to a Japanese jazz wunderkind as an author could get. He used some of his experiences in Japan and other countries, but filtered them through Hiroshi.
"A lot of Americans go to another country and are inspired to write a novel about their experiences, something that's fictionalized—'An Americans in blank,'" he says. "I felt that whole approach seemed a little banal to me. I wanted to do the opposite, and take the experiences I've had and flip them."
In fact, his Anglo background was almost his undoing. Cherry Whip was initially picked up by an editor at one of the major New York publishers, and it made it all the way to the acquisitions committee. The book was eventually struck down, Antman says, after one of the committee members raised concerns about a westerner presupposing the feelings and opinions of a Japanese man.
"I think she assumed I was trying to depict a typical Japanese person," he says. "But my intentions were to depict an individual. I felt on much more solid ground writing from the perspective of a Japanese character than I did writing from the perspective of a jazz musician."
After losing out to the weak knees of the publishing giants, Antman came across the small ENC, a new press run out of New York by a Russian emigre. Cherry Whip quickly found a home at the boutique press, which puts an emphasis on offbeat social or political viewpoints. Hiroshi, full of artistic hubris and prone to hopelessness and embarrassment, seems to fit the bill.
Antman didn't have to stray far from his own experience to write about Guillain-Barre. Nearly 15 years ago, his father, then in his seventies, suffered the sudden onset of the illness. Much of the details of Hiroshi's hardship were culled from his father's descriptions. His father is still alive at 91, with just a little residual weakness in his legs.
"My father read the novel, and he found it very gratifying to be able to relive his experience through the eyes of another character and see that character struggle the way he struggled," Antman says. "It was probably a little bit traumatic [for him to read it], but I don't think he would have told me that."
And while Antman, a corporate communications consultant from Wilmette, may be the furthest thing from a Japanese jazz boy wonder, it was his time spent in Japan that informed much of Hiroshi's bewilderment at his adopted home.
"I certainly had a lot of experiences where I felt like I was in another world," he says. "They were experiences where I made assumptions that things weren't that different, and I was completely wrong."
Antman will read from Cherry Whip Tuesday 26 at Barbara's Bookstore. See listings.