Paul Di Filippo Reviews Hokuloa Road by Elizabeth Hand

Hokuloa Road, Elizabeth Hand (Mulholland 978-0316542043, hardcover, 368pp, $28.00) July 2022.

In days of yore, when the actual internet was merely science fiction, curious fans found out scarce biographical tidbits about their favorite authors in whatever manner they could: from fanzines, or dustjacket flaps, or occasional media articles and even the rare autobiographical essay. Heinlein lived on a walled estate in Colorado Springs. Poul Anderson, Frank Herbert and Jack Vance once built and sailed a houseboat together. Jack Williamson came out west as a youth in an actual covered wagon. Theodore Sturgeon was a nudist. Leigh Brackett worked in Hollywood. Phil Dick had a run-in with the Feds. Information was sparse and took effort to glean.

Nowadays, with social media, for good or ill, readers can instantly see what their favorite author had for breakfast, where they went on vacation, and what their day job might be. Quite a difference from the era of privacy and obscurity.

I mention this literary-societal trend only to explain that thanks to following author Elizabeth Hand on social media, I know that familial developments have recently instituted a bond between Hand and the state of Hawaii, and that she has spent significant time there. This development explains in part the exciting, rich, thick verisimilitude of her new novel, Hokuloa Road, which is set in our fiftieth state. There truly is nothing else like first-hand involvement with a milieu to foster authenticity, and Hand has obviously applied her keen author’s eye and sensibilities to capture the surface and subsurface reality of this land and culture. But the rest of the majestic allure of the book—which, beside being almost journalistically keen, is rife with thrilling supernatural events—can be traced to Hand’s well-known and previously displayed visionary powers, her remarkable way with words, and her ability to conjure up characters that the reader falls for, then to put them through thrilling events.

Before delving into the plot of the novel and its other attractive features, let me cite two aspects that render the book somewhat different from Hand’s earlier work, in a way that demonstrates ambition and growth. First, the chapters are short and very intense, with micro-climaxes throughout. (There are over one hundred sections to the tale.) Second, her protagonist is unlike many of the heroes and heroines she has formerly featured: not an intensely self-aware, often outlaw creator, but rather an Average Joe, a working stiff, albeit one with some unusual insights, compassion, and bravery.

We meet Grady Kendall, a fellow in his twenties, in his home state of Maine. It’s 2020, and Covid has just descended on the world. Grady, a carpenter and all-round handyman, is between jobs, between lovers, and wondering what to do with himself, when an opportunity drops into his lap. Be a caretaker at the estate of an eccentric millionaire in Hawaii? Sounds wild and crazy, but why not?

When Grady lands in the islands (on a fictional or disguised island, given that the place names there have no real-world matches), he says goodbye to his new in-flight travel acquaintance, Jessie, and is met by Dalita, a sometime-employee of Wes Minton, the millionaire. She gets Grady oriented, then brings him out to the remote estate on Hokuloa Road, a place of beauty and potential—and subliminal menace. Introduced finally in person to Minton himself (the guy seems okay), Grady settles down to his chores. They are not very demanding, however, because overseer Minton is frequently away, visiting an even remoter part of his holdings, the Hokuloa Peninsula, an ancient undeveloped parcel where no one else is allowed to visit.

But already, behind the beauty, lurk many ominous phenomena. Unlikely deaths, vanished men and women, belligerent surf bums, and strange doglike creatures that appear from nowhere.

Drinking a little too much beer, getting acquainted with Dalita’s family, Grady is shocked to learn that his chance pal Jessie, from the airplane encounter, is now numbered among the missing. He takes it upon himself, acting as a kind of half-baked bumbling sleuth, to try to learn what happened to her. You might think of Pynchon’s Inherent Vice with fewer drugs and less hipster posturing. This pursuit involves him with Jessie’s native host, another woman named Raina. Initially off putting, Raina and Grady eventually form a bond.

Shuttling back and forth between Hokuloa Road and the small urban area, Grady undergoes several unsettling incidents. Finally, piecing things together, he realizes that the ultimate solution will only be found at Minton’s hideaway on Hokuloa Peninsula. Getting there is difficult, involving almost superhuman exertions and spirit guides. But getting out alive might be impossible.

Besides the aforementioned great portrait of the islands—their colorful, often misunderstood past, their present of economic inequalities and tourist domination, their flora and fauna—Hand gives us in Grady a fully rounded individual with a checkered past, whose limited real-world experience is supplemented by his good heart and moral compass. Having bumbled many chances in his life, Grady is determined to follow this quest through to the bitter end. And after a wild, shocking climax, Hand lingers long enough to build a satisfying coda for the man.

The shivery occult elements of the tale are integral to the mystery, and to Grady’s maturation. But they assume secondary importance when weighed against the mysteries of everyday life, and how all our fates are interconnected.

And Jessica might be part of it too. He couldn’t shake the sense, irrational as it was, that their paths had crossed for a reason. It wasn’t just that she reminded him, in an uncanny fashion, of Kayla Macintosh; or that Kayla’s suicide, and his father’s, and Jessie’s disappearance all seemed like points on a star chart he couldn’t read. Because there were other points there too—Scotty, with his mad stare and gaping mouth; Raina and Kaupe; the sea urchins and the birds in Minton’s aviary. All those people whose cell phones filled a metal strongbox. All those people whose names were written on an abandoned building in the middle of a burned-out field…. A world where people disappeared and ghosts screamed with the voices of people he cared about…

Swift-moving yet deliberate, establishing thick connections between the natural world and the numinous forces behind it, Hokuloa Road would make a great dramatic TV miniseries. Call it Hawaii-666.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over 30 years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

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