Red Sky, Red Dragonfly
by John Galligan
“Red Sky, Red Dragonfly is an extremely impressive debut by a writer who looks headed for literature’s premier league.”
In the hours before his sayonara party, a handsome young American vanishes from the Japanese village where he has been the first-ever foreign English teacher. The first result is a throng of disappointed women. But when Stuart Norton fails to show up back home in Utah, or anywhere else, his disappearance quickly becomes more ominous. Something bad has happened to the town’s first and only foreign teacher.
The town is Kitayama, a beleaguered old castle town in the northern snow country. Stuart’s disappearance threatens the Kitayama International Business Plan, and loyal town fathers scramble to squelch the mystery and preserve their tenuous grasp on modernization. Thus Stuart’s problems in Kitayama are effectively hidden, leaving it to the next teacher, grizzled Tommy Morrison, to grope his way to the truth.
A refugee from a shattered inter-racial marriage and a fizzled pro hockey career, Tommy MacArthur can feel the young man’s torment. He is also rebellious enough to defy town fathers and explore the fate of his countryman. As his own teenage son becomes a runaway in the United States, Tommy latches on to Stuart’s case and sees it through to its heartbreaking conclusion.
Tommy makes three Japanese friends along the way, and their viewpoints inform the story. Wealthy old Yoichi Ono believes in a ghost named Kappa, and he may have reason. Noriko Yamaguchi, Tommy’s miserably married “handler,” shows him the love hotel. And a vast ex-sumo wrestler, Yohei Wada, placidly steers them all toward the heart of things. Together, they assemble the pieces of Stuart’s tortured final days. Then they climb the local mountain, and within the gloom and isolation of an ancient shrine, they find the young man’s body, hanged.
But Tommy has made enemies along the way, too. And as the truth about Stuart’s anguish and suicide is at last revealed, Kitayama officials quietly arrange for Tommy’s deportation. The parting is bittersweet. Kitayama has grown and changed, and now a true debate over modernization can begin. And Tommy has grown and changed as well. Understanding now his place in the world as a white man, as a father, and – hoping against hope – as a husband, he boards his airplane for home.
“Most works of fiction that take Japan as their subject from a foreign perspective fall unwittingly or wittingly into one or more of several inviting traps: false exoticization, false profundity, false stylization, false sentimentalization, to name a few.
Step forward John David Morley, Pico Ayer and Alan Brown.
A few writers have the nous and humility to avoid these pitfalls.
Step forward Kazuo Ishiguro and Jay McInerney.
Step forward John Galligan.
Red Sky, Red Dragonfly is one of the best first novels and one of the most “authentic” fictional evocations of this country and its people I have read. While Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World and McInerney’s Ransom are convincing largely by virtue of their stylistic austerity and disciplined narrative structures, Red Sky, Red Dragonfly rings true because of its messiness. Galligan parades a Shakespearean gallery of characters. Meet 15-year-old Miwa, peering glumly through her bangs. When Stuart tries clumsily to remove her Mickey Mouse bra, Miwa defends her honor with a kendo sword. Meet Noriko Yamaguchi, the unhappily married secretary of Prince English School whose blue business suit hangs “almost crookedly on her thin frame” and whose manner falls “somewhere between severe and bereft.” Meet her mother-in-law, “stout old Mama Yama in red kimono, not more than five feet tall, strong as a beetle.” Meet the town tycoon, Yoichi Ono, who salts his Japanese with Biblical English–”Thou shalt very, very kiotsukete”–but is so beholden to the mountain demon that he buys two of every luxury item in which he indulges himself, including a vintage Cadillac–one for himself, one to haul up the mountain as a votive offering at the demon’s shrine. The dialogue is spot-on. The brittle exchanges between Noriko and Mama Yama, a prototypical “obatarian,” for example, are wince-inducing and hilarious. There’s nothing self-consciously innovative about Galligan’s style, but time and again you come across passages in which he shows a rare élan…Red Sky, Red Dragonfly is an extremely impressive debut by a writer who looks headed for literature’s premier league.”
—The Daily Yomiuri
“Red Sky, Red Dragonfly, a first novel by college writing professor John Galligan, provides ample evidence that he understands the craft he teaches. A humorous and original tale spanning two continents and four cultures, this book is a winner. The novel resonates with straightforward, but finely developed, characters, plot, and motivation. In addition, it is refreshingly lacking in the sanctimonious and exotic trappings that decorate so many other novels of this genre. ‘Red Sky, Red Dragonfly” is a refreshing and unexpected surprise.”
—The Japan Times
“Part mystery, part literary fiction, Red Sky, Red Dragonfly explores the way in which race is experienced, what it means to be foreign and how cultural differences can become divides. Galligan has written a smart and fast-paced novel. “
—The Capital Times
“It is the development of Galligan’s characters and the sophistication of the writing itself that drive the novel. His descriptions are starkly accurate and written in a finely tuned prose. Red Sky, Red Dragonfly establishes John Galligan as an intriguing new voice in American contemporary fiction. “
—The Badger Herald