April 2010

Salvatore Ruggiero


Joe Speedboat by Tommy Wieringa, translated by Sam Garrett

Jean-Pierre Melville’s film masterpiece Le Samouraï begins with an epigraph attributed to the fictional Book of Bushido: “There is no solitude greater than the samurai’s, unless perhaps it be that of a tiger in the jungle.” Slowly we are nudged into the world of assassin Jef Costello -- not one who lives in the shogunate world of Japan, but rather one who’s of the 1960s Parisian gangster underworld. This discrepancy is a bit jarring at first, especially since Quentin Tarantino films have made us believe that wielding around a katana is perfectly normal in the contemporary world; but we soon grow to realize the parallels -- the stoicism, the calculated plots, the seppuku -- between Le Samouraï’s French protagonist and traditional Japanese samurai.

Joe Speedboat similarly starts with such an epigraph: “It is said that the samurai/travels a twofold Way/that of the brush and that of the sword.” This comes from an actual guide to strategy and philosophy, The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. Joe Speedboat doesn’t waste any time employing this epigraph: We discover that our narrator is a fan of Miyamoto’s writings, seeing this book in his every day. We notice that the novel, like the samurai’s twofold path, is split into two main parts -- brush and sword. And with the in-your-face voice of the narrator, Frankie Hermans, we know that this is going to be much more winsome than Melville’s Le Samouraï: we’re not in tragedy territory, but that of the bildungsroman.

For Frankie Hermans has already suffered enough. Due to a tractor tearing apart his body, he has lost the ability to communicate with the outside world as well as the use of most of his limbs -- all but, conveniently, his writing arm. And with said arm, he decides that he’s going to write everything about all the quotidian occurrences of his rural Dutch town, as there’s not much else he can do. Plus he thinks it would be nice if an historian one day chanced upon his journals, therefore being able to reconstruct the daily details of Frankie’s village.

Life would be pretty dull, but enter a new kid in school. He goes by the name Joe Speedboat. Obviously that’s not his real name, but even his mother won’t dish out the truth. His appearance is something completely other than Frankie’s: he’s mobile, he’s science-oriented, his family is nomadic. Joe is into explosions, what he calls “kinetic energy.” He ignites bombs in town, getting the neighbors into a fit. He builds an airplane out of random parts, which exhilarates the boys who help him construct it.

Opposites attract, as Frankie wants to be Joe’s best friend. Frankie is included but isn’t front and center; we watch as Joe and his other friends get into a load of mischief and fall in love for the first time -- all with the same girl, the enigmatic P.J. Her name, like Joe’s, eludes us too, as does her loyalty. But that is all secondary to Joe’s brilliant idea that shifts this novel from being something typical to one that soars over your average coming-of-age tale. Wieringa smoothly maneuvers into the absurd with Joe’s idea for Frankie’s writing arm: Entering it into arm wrestling competitions. Much like Sylvester Stallone in Over the Top, but never feeling that way.

That’s because Wieringa’s protagonist has an attitude attune to Holden Caulfield, without the anxiety and the quirks. We already feel as if Frankie has already done enough growing up. We’re not sympathetic to him because of his unfortunate condition; we’re sympathetic because of his unwavering, confident voice -- one already infused and matured with Miyamoto’s writings and teachings. Gearing up for a match, Frankie thinks:

Before I continue, it might be useful to explain that when you’re arm wrestling you feel a continuous flux of muscle tension, ranging from the very slight to the extremely pronounced, and it’s important to pay close attention to such changes in pressure. You can feel them, like the dying down or rising up of the wind. Musashi writes that in a duel we must make sure that our opponent changes position, and that we must profit from his irregular rhythm.

The narrator is able to apply literature to life, lyrically, with an attention to minutiae. This is in opposition to the other writer figure, one of P.J.’s Amsterdammer boyfriends, who she first describes as such: “I’d love to introduce you, but he can’t handle new people. It scares him. Sometimes it makes him aggressive, you never know. He finds it very difficult to be touched, sometimes he shrivels all up when I touch him... He’s tried to commit suicide three times. But the things he’s taught me! It’s amazing, the things he teaches me!” Such clichés, such emptiness when you compare to Frankie’s mind.

In a way, it’s a wonder why the book isn’t titled after its narrator. Frankie’s charismatic, he’s intelligent, he’s the kinetic energy that thrusts the narrative forward. Perhaps self-titling the book would be too vane a decision for the narrator. And we would lose the tension of where we as readers should put our focus: on Joe, the eponymous antihero, or on Frankie, the unlikely warrior. Frankie’s story ultimately wins out. And his physical silence echoes the silence of Le Samouraï’s Jef Costello. Frankie may not have the suave demeanor, the enticing eyes, or even the muscle control of Costello; but like Costello he is on a warrior path that is enhanced by his solitude -- though aided by his mastery of both his sword (arm) and his brush (pen).

Joe Speedboat by Tommy Wieringa, translated by Sam Garrett
Black Cat
ISBN: 0802170722
328 Pages