Fox Drum Beblop
Gene Oishi’s Fox Drum Bebop contains a gorgeous richness inside and out. Not only the prose, but also the overall design and storytelling structure captivate the reader. A thought on design, before getting into the breathtaking attention to detail that Gene Oishi pays his settings and characters: in a day where the value of print books faces question in the face of e-readers, publishers have begun to wise up to the importance of design. The Kaya Press design of the paperback book—its neat and tastefully designed inner jacket, exciting header typeface that does not go overboard in its artfulness, and vague ink drawings at the beginning of each chapter—merit a mention that tilts toward the still-exciting, still-evolving experience of printed literature.
However, this review could go on endlessly about design, and we are here for content. Plotwise, Fox Drum Bebop narrates the experiences of a first generation Japanese immigrant named Hiroshi and his family before, during, and long after their internment at a prison camp in Arizona during World War II. The Kono family enjoys relative wealth and a respected status in Hacienda, but the war and the time spent in prison take a lasting toll on their status, as well as Hiroshi’s life for years to come.
With a current re-emerging public attention toward racial disparities in the United States, in the context of the Ferguson trials and the #BlackLivesMatter mantra trending, a great book like this one becomes particularly salient. Far from didactic or harshly critical, Fox Drum Bebop offers an honest exposure of a time in America—not too long ago—when systematic racism and xenophobia affected an entirely different population. Furthermore, Fox Drum highlights the complexities about the experiences of racial “othering” in the United States. For example, two brothers of Hiroshi’s family named Mickey and Yukio find themselves pitted against one another: during internment, Micky, who had found success assimilating into white American culture prior to the war, is a part of an American loyalty league, causing friction with his brother Yukio, who has never assimilated to or identified with American culture. Readers can draw varied conclusions from the complex racial issues Oishi brings up in his work. The fact is that racial inequality and racial otherness play a major role as a theme in this novel, particularly in a context that we as Americans seldom face.
Though the book centers primarily around Hiroshi and the war’s effects on his life, the narrative departs largely from his perspective and paints a full, vivid picture of the inner lives of his entire family. Though this interesting turn varies at times in its effectiveness—the timeline of the narrative becomes muddled every so often—this convention helps further deepen the reader’s understanding of this particular family and each individual’s experience with being first-generation Japanese immigrants.
The most noteworthy aspect of this book, however, is the richness of the prose. Oishi peppers every character, every action, every moment of dialogue with such surprising detail that the reader cannot help but feel hypnotized at the reality of it. Part of what makes the book so effective is that, though at many points grim, the narrative contains a slew of colorful side characters and situational humor that comes mostly out of intensely focused setting and place detail. Even from the onset comes the hilarious character of Tex, whose vernacular Oishi carefully captures with moments like “tabbaky” and “Hee-row.” His juxtaposition as Hiro’s peer shows an early awareness of class disparities, as Hiro’s family is comparatively wealthy to the caricaturized Tex.
Through and through, Fox Drum Bebop proves a wonderful piece of modern literature. Topical, colorful, and complex, it will surely provide a worthwhile read.