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Dazed and confused in a perilous Tokyo underworld

Country of Origin
By Don Lee
Norton, 315 pp., $24.95

In his first novel, "Country of Origin," Don Lee continues to explore the plight of those born of mixed race, which he began in his prize-winning story collection, "Yellow." In this mystery, which begins in 1980, in Tokyo, a 24-year-old named Lisa Countryman goes on a strange date with an older man, is disillusioned, more than a little drunk, and through her own carelessness dies. That's what the reader knows.

What the other characters are left with is her disappearance, and the tension in the novel builds around the search for her, alive or dead. Those on the case are Tom Hurley, a junior officer at the US Embassy born of a Korean mother and a white American soldier, and Kenzo Ota, a has-been Japanese detective, one of the "window people," demoted to a window in his office, away from all the action.

As the novel unfolds we learn that Lisa came to Japan to teach English and, because of various misfortunes, ended up in working in the sex trade, finally landing in the classy Rendezvous Club. Here Lisa, literally, finds her voice, becomes a desired "date," falls in love, and begins to travel with powerful Japanese executives and the CIA agents who spook them. One of these agents, slowly revealed to be the linchpin, is Vincent Kitamura; he is also of mixed race (Japanese and white American), has several names, and is married to Julia Tinsley, a white American as tinselly as her name.

In the first third of the book there is too much fussing with plot; more is told than shown, and too many of the characters seem superficial and off-putting. At first I thought Lee had fallen into the same trap as Dean Kim in "Yellow," whose "head still swam with delight at the first hint of a frame-up or a double-cross." Or that he was sidetracked by sex. There is a tedious slog through the Japanese sex trade with the excuse that this is where Lisa worked, and most of the sex in this book has a cold, "professional" tinge, as Julia puts it. Yet Lee knows how to write and he surely knows that the reader has to have someone to root for.

What keeps the reader going until Lee hits his stride is Kenzo, a clumsy yet lovable character, reminiscent of Nabokov's Pnin, with his overly acute hearing, his longing for a normal life, his bumbling attempts at love, and his mistaken conclusions about Lisa's quest. He is a wonderful creation, Lee at his best. The writing in those passages is relaxed, funny, and compassionate. We feel Kenzo's loneliness as he courts his landlady, tails the fat biracial boy he thinks is his son, tries to sort out Lisa's "research," and lives with his disappointments and failures.

As the writing becomes more assured, the rest of the characters become more rounded and sympathetic. When we see Lisa embarking on a quest for her biological mother, trying to change her penchant for bad luck, and falling in love with a man she knows as David Saito, we realize how difficult it has been for her to live in skin that looks white but is really half-Asian and half-black. Soon we begin to understand the terrible truth of what it means to be biracial in a country as homogeneous as Japan. Lisa's search for her biological mother reveals the shameful ways Koreans were treated in Japan, during and after World War II, and becomes heartbreaking when she finds herself face to face with the woman who delivered her.

Lee, who has lived in Tokyo, knows the Japanese, with all their foibles and illusions. He portrays them as unhealthily interested in sophomoric sex, convinced of their uniqueness, and possessed of what they call mono no aware, "the Japanese penchant for poignancy and sadness." He knows the ins and outs of their systems of bribery and power just as intimately as he knows the goings on of the CIA and the US Foreign Service, and the book is interesting for its details about both groups.

But beneath the surface of this novel are those nagging and eternal questions: How deep the desire to belong really is, how vulnerable the mixed-race individual feels as soon as he realizes what he is, and how that vulnerability affects all kinds of choices. Here is Tom, musing:

"He lay awake in bed. . . . He had not put up a single decoration, not acquired a single souvenir. . . . This was how he had always lived, how he had grown up. . . . He realized it was also a means of self-protection. If he avoided staying in one place too long, if he avoided relying on someone to be there with him, to accept him for what he was and wasn't, to look upon him with complete devotion, he would never get hurt."

At the end of the book, Lisa is dreaming about the hope of America, "a land where all was possible." And she thinks, "We are orphans, all of us. . . . And this is our home." Yet that's too easy, and Lee knows it. As I closed this fine novel I was reminded of a quotation from Paul Scott, who knew his share about exile and alienation: "A country was a state of mind and a man could properly exist only in his own."

Perhaps that is all any of us can hope for.

Roberta Silman's most recent novel is "Beginning the World Again: A Novel of Los Alamos."

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