My ignorance was highlighted recently when a friend and colleague lent me a collection of short stories called Tokyo Sketches by Peter Hamill. I had no idea who this guy was — cousin of Mark “Luke Skywalker” Hamill, perhaps? — but I did thoroughly enjoy the anthology. As it turned out, Peter Hamill is a “legendary” New York journalist, an lifetime award-receiving writer, novelist and essayist and a columnist and editor for the New York Post and the New York Daily News.
Hamill’s background explains a lot, including why the 13 short stories in this 1992 book are so varied, well-written and insightful. The prose is confident but light, which makes for a brisk read, and the atmosphere is expertly conveyed through a small handful of spot-on descriptions and astute observations. What impressed me the most was how Hamill could, in only a few pages, always get me to care about his characters, no matter who or where they are. It’s the sign of a writer who has an uncanny grasp of universal human emotions and knows how to connect them to readers through words.
The common theme is, as the title suggests, Tokyo, but each story is told through the point of view of a very different character, from a young female Japanese reporter to an old, lonely Japanese man, from an over-the-hill American boxer to a Samurai-obsessed student. I haven’t seen anything in the Hamill’s biographies suggesting he has ever lived in Japan for an extended period of time, but his wife appears to be Japanese. I’m sure I’m sure having interviewed hundreds if not thousands of people over the decades has given him a whole treasure trove of unique characters and little stories and snippets to choose from, but either wher way, it’s damn impressive how diverse his stories are and how he manages to slip some aspect of Japanese culture into each and every one of them — whether it is music, baseball or the war. Even after 20 years, the book and its characters still ring true.
I’m usually wary of short story collections (especially if it’s from the same author) because they tend to be a mixed bag of some good and some not-so-good stories, or alternatively, stories that won’t appeal to everyone. Of course, there are some stories I liked more in this collection than others, but on the whole there really isn’t a weak link in Tokyo Sketches. Personally, my favorite stories are probably The Price of Everything, about a Japanese widow learning to love again; The Opponent, about a fixed boxing match, and The Magic Word, which is about one of my favorite things in Japanese culture — manga. A lot of them — actually, most of them — are kind of melancholy and deal with disappointment and heartbreak, but there are some heartwarming moments littered throughout to prevent you from getting too depressed.
On the whole, this is a strong collection of short stories and definitely one of the better ones I’ve encountered. Thanks to Hamill for making my trips to and from work over the last couple of weeks so engrossing.