Franklin Hata is a pillar of the community. After World War II, he moved from Japan to the small New York town of Bedley Run, bought a beautiful old house that he has kept in impressive shape, and opened a medical supply store. His neighbors call him “Doc” and have, for the most part, welcomed him into their community, and he now enjoys what he calls “an almost Oriental veneration as an elder.” Few of his neighbors know anything about the secrets that haunt him; he keeps that pain to himself, hiding it even from himself.
When Chang-rae Lee’s A Gesture Life begins, Doc Hata has recently retired and is deciding what to do with his remaining years. Real estate agent Liv Crawford is after him to sell his house, but he’s not sure where he would go. While he’s considering his options, an accidental fire draws him closer to his neighbors and causes him to look back on all the connections he’s amassed and abandoned during his life. There’s an adopted daughter who’s mysteriously absent, a former lover who left, and the Korean “comfort woman” who was forced into sexual slavery at the camp where Hata served during the war.
Hata reveals his secrets gradually, only as necessary. It’s as if he’s hiding the memories from himself. In fact, the fire that upset his life started because he was trying to burn the few photographs that remain of his daughter Sunny. She never comes up in conversation, unless someone else mentions her, and Hata remains vague about the rift between them. His reserve is partly cultural, but it’s also a form of denial and of control. If a crisis makes him vulnerable, he deals with it as quickly as possible and returns to his routine, just as he did after Sunny left him:
Routine triumphs over everything, as it always does with men like me, and I returned to the living of Bedley Run and its vested, untouchable ways. In truth I was beginning to understand my position after so many years, my popularity and high reputation, one that someone like Liv Crawford would say was “triple mint,” or “among the finest in town.” Because that in fact is what it was, and has been, and no doubt will be until I die. It was during Sunny’s absence that I finally awoke to this notion, that I was perfectly suited to my town, that I had steadily become, oddly and unofficially, its primary citizen, the living, breathing expression of what people here wanted–privacy and decorum and the quietude of hard-earned privilege.
Hata may claim this high position for himself, but there’s sadness and perhaps a tinge of satire in this claim. He’s appreciated because he doesn’t make waves. That’s how you make “friends” in small-town USA. But they’re friends in quotation marks. A big, messy life might cause a fuss and even make enemies, but it might also build bonds. It’s a fire that draws Hata into something resembling friendship with his neighbors. Was it the lack of fire within him that caused past relationships to die out? And is there a reason he’s so cautious?
Lee parcels out Hata’s story in small bits, skipping back to the past as Hata digs into his memory, trying to understand his own feelings about the present. Some of the digging feels forced, as if Lee is deliberately holding back on the big secret to create suspense, but this withholding also reveals just how reluctant Hata is to remember. I realized quickly that I had to be on the alert with Doc Hata because he doesn’t always share the whole story, and he doesn’t always understand as well as he thinks he does, especially when it comes to Sunny. In this respect, he reminded me a little of Tony Webster from Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. In the end, I couldn’t quite decide what I thought of Doc Hata as a person, but I was interested in his story, and I’m glad to have read this.