REVIEW | Mililani Mauka
By Chris McKinney
Mutual Publishing; 217 pages

Reviewed by Christine Thomas
Published in the Honolulu Advertiser 5.13.09

“Real” life suburban dramas are ubiquitous across television today, viewers relishing the scandals and pettiness simmering inside picture-perfect, cookie-cutter exterior worlds. It’s both timely and bold, then, that Chris McKinney’s latest novel, “Mililani Mauka,” bounces off that exact framework—skewed, of course, to McKinney’s brand of dark, underbelly portraits of contemporary Hawai`i—delving into lives upturned instead of buoyed by O`ahu’s false suburban promises.

It’s a physical landscape rich with metaphorical promise, and McKinney mines it immediately with a disturbing prologue depicting John Krill (who later questionably appears as an edgy menehune ghost) bulldozing Mililani town until shot by police. This scene signals an admirable and ambitious intention to tackle head on the growing resentment of economically-motivated priorities while island problems like poverty and homelessness are largely ignored; yet whereas in previous books McKinney has proved he can tell a simply engaging story, here his narrative chops may have bitten off more than they can successfully chew.

Instead of centering on one fully developed perspective, McKinney spreads out, employing a limited third person narration focused equally on three people. The first is Banyan Mott, a Honolulu Community College English professor (like McKinney), who “cheered that bulldozer on without knowing why.” He lives in the same Mililani home where the other two narrators—Kai Krill and her son Josh—resided before Krill’s rampage sent them living on the beach.

These rotating narrations set a slow plot pace, requiring an appetite for each character’s unrelenting pain and tolerance of their uneven development. Repetition of identifying details, such as Banyan’s profession, evinces a distrust of readers’ attention even in such a slim volume, but the atypical inclusion of a cast of characters explanation at the start may belie McKinney’s awareness of the resulting limitations of juggling so many voices.

Banyan’s narrative echoes his miserable marriage to a wife who, unlike him, loves the “suburban platonic orgy” and incredibly one night drinks two bottles of wine herself—just one of several ill-fitting details, especially here for a functioning nurse and obsessive-compulsive mother. And when midway through McKinney lets slip additional minutiae such as Banyan’s recent eyebrow ring, its late timing is puzzling and instead of unpeeling deeper personality layers, anchors Banyan’s portrait in two-dimensions.

When Kai interacts with Banyan, whom she secretly meets in class at HCC while homeless, she morphs into a confident and centered woman, at once worldly and naïve—not at all as she appears in her sections; but these discrepancies are never addressed and thus can’t add depth or understanding. Even more unsettling, Kai mainly thinks and acts like a man, never taking a clear shape. When he tries to present an unvarnished look at homeless life, he casts Kai as a horny woman who regrets “Number 126 negative thing about being homeless: you don’t have a private place to get yourself off,” then unbelievably “creeps through the dry kiawe, searching for empty cans and bottles, tempted to squat in the brush, put her hand in her pants, and go at it.” It’s a nearly fatal gender misstep that’s both physically and emotionally off the mark.

Josh is the most rounded character and his sections are more powerful and give the novel breathing room—even though he sometimes sounds like Banyan, other times a small child, then a hardened teen—mainly because they contain natural reflection about his yearnings, parents’ failing marriage, mother’s neglect and father’s love, and insight into other characters, not just numb action and tunnel vision. Even though McKinney purposefully crafts all characters as lost and wounded, in Josh’s sections he includes what’s needed in Banyan’s and Kai’s—developing strength and redeeming qualities that make the reader invested.

In addition to some strained interactions and unnatural dialogue, largely hampering successful dramatization is McKinney’s teacherly instinct, persistently driving home the message that was clear from the first pages—Hawai`i has changed, and become materially and spiritually poor. But the plot doesn’t delve pointedly into “[t]he poverty [that] seems almost computer-generated on what would otherwise be a picture of tropical paradise,” and instead sketches a landscape of artificial exteriors and unfulfilling lives that aren’t so much unique to Hawai`i as they are domestic and human—if also Western—and an all too familiar story well beyond our shores.

In the end the characters remain trapped in McKinney’s metaphorical suburbs, their troubles palpable even after moving to “real” neighborhoods. And though Kai and Banyan banter wittily in response to another character’s clunky query: “‘So when did Hawai`i stop being Hawai`i?’” they don’t seem to accept their participation in Hawai`i now. Instead they destroy or leave behind what they don’t like, and try to be happy with what’s left—which isn’t much—leaving readers to decide how inevitable change can be shaped for the better.