"We want to enclose the universe in a work of art.
Individual objects do not exist any more."
-Gino Severini, Futurist Manifesto, 1913

Born of violent deep-sea eruptions over millions of years, the islands of Hawaii eventually emerged above the surface of the ocean as one of the grandest archipelagos the world has known. Isolated in the center of a vast ocean, life did not come easy to those volcanic reefs. It took millions of more
years - unimaginable effort by flora and fauna alike - for life to catch a foothold there, and but a brief moment on the geological clock to all but eradicate the islands of the pagan wildness they once with teemed.

All the Pretty Islands
In Hawaii (Fawcett, $7.99), James A. Michener delivers a passionate historical account of the Hawaiian islands. It's a monumental book, both in the epic grandeur of the tale (it begins several million years before Man) and in the type of storytelling Michener attempts with it. Before Hawaii, his books lacked the historical fortitude that readers have come to associate with Michener; books such as The Source, The Covenant, Space, and others in which the author merges fiction with history to deliver a grand, new mythology on the subject. We can't be certain what launched Michener on this new form of storytelling. His earlier works lack nothing for not covering eons of history; in fact some are probably more enjoyable for it (Tales of The South Pacific, The Bridges at Toko Ri). That said, it's hard to imagine the story of the Hawaiian Islands told without Michener's brand of historical scope.

Hawaii is not so much a story about how the islands affected the people who claimed them for themselves, but rather how the people affected the islands. Though Michener recounts four major migrations to the islands, each bringing with them customs and practices that tweaked Hawaiian culture, the enduring character throughout is the island chain itself.

The first migrants to Hawaii were the Polynesians. They were a fierce pagan people who relied on omens from their gods for guidance. The original Hawaiians, they fled Bora Bora and a religion of death, in search of Havaiki, a mythological island that would prove to be a five thousand mile trek away. They reached it under power of sail, in a time when the rest of the world rarely ventured from land's sight. It would be another seven centuries before European explorers would attempt a comparable voyage.

The second migrants, a thousand years behind the first, were New England missionaries, an intolerant breed of Puritanical Christians who settled in Hawaii for religious purposes. They were a fierce, God-fearing bunch who relied on signs from their god for guidance, so while they berated their pagan charges for relying on omens, they saw nothing wrong with themselves recognizing a sign from God. On the surface, the Missionaries and Polynesians couldn't have been more different, yet their circumstances were practically identical. They both were in Hawaii for religious reasons; one to save themselves, the other to save savages.

The third and fourth migratory groups were the Chinese and Japanese, respectively. Like the Polynesians and Missionaries before them, they had more in common than either would have admitted. Historically adversarial, they found themselves in the same boat, so to speak. Both were brought to the islands to work the fields (the Chinese in the mid-1800s; the Japanese fifty years later), and both made in-roads far beyond anything their employers could approve of. Gifted shopkeepers, by 1940 the Asian community was the backbone of Honolulu commerce.

As the story progresses, a picture of a besieged land emerges. Out of the first arrival of Europeans, the sandalwood trade was established and the Hawaiians proceeded to degrade their forests, flooding (and thus devaluing) Asian markets with the coveted wood. The arrival of large scale agriculture brought with it the draining of environmentally sensitive wetlands, the flooding of areas for the cultivation of rice (necessary to feed the imported Asian workers), and the relentless search for sources of fresh water which culminated in an ambitious project that blasted an aquifer right through the middle of the mountains on Oahu in order to tap the wet north side for the farms and communities on the dry south. With success comes growth and the necessity for more resources, thus by the 1920s Hawaii was caught in the spiral all successful civilizations find themselves. Her cities were gobbling up land in their relentless growth, while her farms responded by taming more of the wild - and very limited - real estate available. Hawaii, the jewel of the Pacific, was being reigned in geographically, even as the very people pulling the reigns were undergoing a cultural metamorphosis that would result in the next migration.

[McCarthy] is uniquely gifted in folding acute detail into his writing

in such a way it flows with the unencumbered grace of the

bareback ponies he's so fond of writing about . . .

The fifth and final "migration" was an inner one. Developed from a sociological concept of an archetype forged in the islands out of Eastern and Western influences, the so-called Golden Man was born, both ancient yet in tune with modernity. He was, for all practical purposes, a modern god, as mythological in existence as the men who left the first footprints in the island sand; as tangible as all the other god-like characters that fill Hawaii. Hoxworth Hale, descendent of the first missionaries describes him:
    . . . I thought that the Golden Man concept referred to the coloring of the new man . . . in time I realized that this bright, hopeful man of the future, this unique contribution of Hawaii to the rest of the world, did not depend for his genesis upon racial intermarriage at all. He was a product of the mind. His was a way of thought, and not of birth, and one day I discovered . . . that for several years I had known the archetypes of the Golden Man . . .
All the Pretty Cowboys
Hawaii closes in 1950, two years after Cormac McCarthy's classic All the Pretty Horses (Knopf, $13.00) takes place. Set in Texas and Mexico, McCarthy's paradise is a mental one. It follows a couple of misplaced cowboys on their quest for nirvana: great spreads of unfenced ranch land. Disgruntled with America's modernity and nursing a broken heart, John Grady Cole and his buddy Rawlins set off across the Rio Grande like a couple of desperados on the lam. As they ride, they encounter a young boy named Jimmy Blevins and, against their better judgment, let him accompany them. We don't know Blevins' story, except he's a big talker and John Grady takes on the role of guardian of the youngster. Together, they ride off in search of the proverbial sunset; one rider (John Grady) who's story we know, the other two practically complete mysteries to us and each other.

They find Mexico a rough and tumble land. In it also they find the paradise they seek at the Hacienda de Nuestra Senora de la Purisma Concepcion, a ranch of some eleven thousand hectares. Having parted ways with Blevins, Rawlins and John Grady are employed by the ranch breaking horses, a satisfying activity for both young men. Further satisfying for John Grady is the rancher's daughter Alejandra, with whom he finds paradise in matters of the heart. It is short lived, however, and the resources of her powerful father come down on his head, shattering the paradise he and Rawlins have found for themselves.

The rest of the story recounts their return to Texas. It's a journey that includes the vulgarities of a Mexican prison, a situation Blevins has no small part in them finding themselves. It exacts a terrible toll on the young men, leaving neither physically whole. John Grady's price is highest; his freedom is secured by Alejandra's aunt on the promise she'll not pursue a courtship with him, landing a fatal blow to the last illusion of paradise he has.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you already knew that. (All the Pretty Horses was a very successful Miramax film starring box office draws Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz.) While good, the movie fails to capture McCarthy's over-the-top writing style. He rants, paying hardly any attention to punctuation, breaking the rules of structure while somehow managing - in a big way - to deliver the goods. Reminiscing on the late great Comanche Nation, he writes:

    When the wind was in the north you could hear them, the horses and the breath of the horses and the horses' hooves that were shod in rawhide and the rattle of lances and the constant drag of the travois poles in the sand like the passing of some enormous serpent and the young boys naked on wild horses jaunty as circus riders and hazing wild horses before them and the dogs trotting with their tongues aloll and footslaves following half naked and sorely burdened and above all the low chant of their traveling song which the riders sang as they rode, nation and ghost of nation passing in a soft chorale across that mineral waste to darkness bearing lost to all history and all remembrance like a grail the sum of their secular and transitory and violent lives.
Although his writing style might take a few pages to get your head around, once accomplished, McCarthy delivers in adroit fashion. He is uniquely gifted at folding acute detail into his writing in such a way it flows with the unencumbered grace of the bareback ponies he's so fond of writing about, and for which he won the National Book Award.

In the end, All the Pretty Horses is a story about culture's effect on the individual. John Grady's left physically, mentally and emotionally scarred by his journey into nirvana. The story closes with him still in the saddle, a portrait of the old American West, accepting that things change, but embracing none of it. His character, we suspect, will go the way of the Comanche warrior, horse and rider "Pass[ing] and pal[ing] into the darkening land, the world to come." It's a fate in sharp contrast to that of the characters in Hawaii, who's business for the most part is all about change. Like the geological forces that shape the islands in an endless cycle of shrugging off old volcanic rock for new, the Hawaiian culture Michener portrays is one of flux. He gives us characters that embrace the positive elements of change, gleaning from each stranger to their paradise traits to enrich, prosper and improve society. For these reasons Hawaii's future, unlike John Grady's, looks anything but pale.

posted 03/11/03