Heads by Harry


The underachieving, unappreciated middle child of a Japanese Hawaiian family, Toni Yagyuu just wants a little attention and affection from the men in her life— most of all from her father, Harry O., a gruff but sweet taxidermist. The stubborn narrator of Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s third novel refuses to speak up, however, as she is let down again and again by the ones she loves most.

Yet even as they break her heart, Toni’s cool psychological observations remain both unsparing and profoundly generous. This is Yamanaka at her best, examining human failure through a microscope of love, of desire. Unfortunately, the characters Toni loves least never appear with such clarity. Her spoiled sister Bunny, her narcissistic gay brother Sheldon, even their kind Mommy never emerge from behind the narrator’s emotional prejudices.

A similar problem in her last novel, Blu’s Hanging, led to accusations that her portrayal of Filipino characters was racist; sadly, the slapstick debate that ensued generally demeaned the issues it raised. Underlying it all was a creeping distrust for Yamanaka’s chosen form, the post­Joy Luck Club multicultural novel. Still, within the genre’s tired conventions (dialect, “exotic” settings, generational conflict), her painful humor has always been subversive, as when Sheldon, dragged by the macho Harry O. on a hunting trip, petulantly bursts into a chorus of “A hundred mirrion meee-ra-culls” (from the godawful 1961 Hollywood assimilationist extravaganza Flower Drum Song). What’s more, her three novels are now being billed as a trilogy on coming of age in Hawaii, which I hope indicates that she’ll soon be turning her talents to less predictable material.

Like most Asian American readers, I’ve grown tired of waiting for the hundred mirrion meee-ra-culls hawked by publishers in the aftermath of the Amy Tan craze. For now, I’m happy to find a little bit of wisdom and humor, a little bit of courage and grace. Lois-Ann’s got it. We want more.