Christopher Ke’alohapauole Akana: A Life
When I first set out to write the Life, I was twenty-six years old, my subject at the time therefore just approaching the twenty-seventh anniversary of his expulsion from the womb. Yet nearly four fruitless years had passed by the time I intend to revisit in these notes; I was now twenty-nine, and had arrived at a kind of perilous crossroads in my work. I remember watching from a blanket spread beneath a courtside palm as Chris calmly sank a preposterous sequence of three-point shots, naturally in awe of the flawless form and follow-through but unable to help reflecting for perhaps the several-thousandth time that he would never again spring with his erstwhile impossible ease over the thickets of big men’s basket-guarding arms to execute that in-Hawaiʻi quite uncommon maneuver, his signature: the so-called “slam dunk.”
I recall with perfect clarity even now as my memory fails the grace and seeming insouciance with which he first began to subject opponents to this aerial mortification when, as a lightly-bearded eighth-grade mesomorph not only capable of consuming two large pepperoni pizzas in a single sitting, but entirely incapable of leaving the table satisfied having left a single slice in either box, an ingestive feat I was never able to witness firsthand but had heard secondhand tell of any number of times, he began, as we then said, to “throw it down”: I was there. At St. Anthony’s School on our island’s beautiful Windward side, not far from Kāneʻohe Bay, Chris Akana was already an absolute demiurge, pure legend, as of course he’d been from well before my arrival in the sixth grade. Already his domination and competitive will had prompted the passage of a school fiat forbidding slam dunks on the eight-foot rims—those stalwart features of many an Oʻahu elementary school yard, intended presumably for the athletic edification of prepubescent pupils still filling out their frames and not yet strong enough to enjoy competition on regulation-height rims, not for the thunderous abuse a young Chris Akana subjected them to daily during recess, while untold calories of cafeteria lunch burbled agreeably behind his already notched and rutted “abs”: the tomahawks, double- and even triple-clutch two-hand slams, outrageous alley-oops, one-eighties, three-sixties; yes, even the eventual full seven-twenties—punishment far too severe for those aging contraptions, a point confirmed for us all on the memorable early afternoon when a ferocious wood-rending reverse compelled the otherwise Akana-sympathetic school administration to forbid all forms of physical contact with the remaining low rims.
Yet no such law preserved the sturdier regulation-height hoops, and when a postpubescent Chris Akana returned to Saint Christopher’s in the late summer at the start of eighth grade having acquired more than the needed additional inch of either height or “hops” he’d required to flush the ball home, it was to commence a final elementary school season that to suggest was not with Fiftieth-State precedent would surely constitute gross litotes. The astonishing distance between our behemoth and any athlete the island had ever seen only widened as he realized he could do anything: on the basketball court he was King. I watched this transformation of consciousness, this transition from mere enjoyment of limitless advantage to a deepening awareness of what it might mean to be great. From my vantage by the water cooler when I wasn’t sorting soiled jerseys or tending to a fallen player’s wounds, I saw untold on-court marvels that season. Once, when an unjust referee’s whistle confined him to our bench for almost a whole half, forced him to look on as his teammates’ play broke down into inept calamity, he sat and observed unfazed until the moment—the very moment, I was watching his eyes—he decided, Enough, rose with mature self-assurance and informed our coach, Leroy, he was checking back in: I rose with the rest of the bench and roared after a corkscrewing jump-stop split a feeble triple-team, left him free to flip an impossible baseline reverse high off the Plexiglas to regain for us the lead. My rapture was such that even Leroy’s barked “Shut the hell up” when I poked my head into the huddle to contribute my own congratulatory whoops barely altered my mood.
Exploits upon exploits, exhaustively compiled in Appendix IIIB of my major work, physical marvels matched only, perhaps, by the marvel of Akana’s tremendous heart. Yes, I never forgot whose stern intervention ended for good the bandying of that ugly epithet familiar to any island settler of Caucasian stock; whose reasonable recommendation that an especially dogged tormentor imagine for a moment a reversal of roles seemed to beam moral light through some window in the bully’s young soul; whose firm hand slammed an antagonist’s shoulder into a column of lockers one morning after he’d witnessed same shoulder knock me tumbling to the lanai’s concrete; who didn’t necessarily like me, but who stuck up for me when no one else would.
He was my unlikely buffer against the hostile attentions of that haole-averse place. Before the knowledge became common that such abuse would no longer be brooked by the broad-minded Chris, a period that unfortunately lasted several unpleasant months, I had suffered many degradations at the hands of the provincial sons and daughters of provincial women and men, a litany I also endeavored to delineate in its entirety in an unfinished endnote to the Life’s second postscript, and though my father would one day attain the rank of Colonel in the United States Marine Corps, a formidable man unafraid to paddle out among unfriendly locals at secluded surf spots off the Kailua coast; though I once saw him step out of our car in traffic to stand down a Samoan a good two times his own weight and with a few quiet brisk phrases send him waddling back to the aged pickup truck from which he’d vaulted with menace in an unjustified rage; though this was a man who—speaking broadly—determined his terms, then compelled the world to accept, my father certainly didn’t raise a Marine. Without Akana I would have been white meat, without any defense well after those harrowing first months, and though things never quite seemed to progress to the point at which he might have considered me a friend—I do not recall, for instance, attending a single celebration of the three birthdays he presumably marked during our St. Anthony’s years, and if it’s true that my retentive powers have attenuated to a parody of their old supple strength, surely this is the sort of memory one forever keeps—he was never unfriendly, a kindness that was as precious at the time as it has been since impossible to forget. And which unlooked for life-altering altruism I truly cannot imagine having survived my brief pre-adolescence on that miserable island without.
That the native population of this so-called paradise was ruthlessly exploited by its colonialist occupiers during a particular peak in our former nation’s imperial zeal; that the illegitimate “state”’s sordid history was a low nickelodeon of oppression and greed; that the power and wealth feeding many a prosperous family tree, the clout that continued to enable heiresses and heirs to subsist on monarchical “spreads” in Kahala and the exorbitant hills of Hawaiʻi Kai while what little was left of the once-rich Native blood slowly seeped into the red dust of dying generations when it wasn’t boiled off in methamphetaminic rage—that this gross disparity of fortunes was at its root illegal, to say nothing of immoral or unjust; and that the perpetrators and perpetuators of this rampant inequality were for the most part white of skin was all true; and it was of course also true that by the time I reached Oʻahu the rightful ramifications of this history were at last being contested in an increasingly volatile public sphere; yet it was also true that I had not participated in this miserable business! I was eleven years old when my father’s institution of employ—admittedly one part of a collective war machinery that the present keepers of history, perhaps justly, do not cast in a favorable light; but the Joint Chiefs of Staff were never my so-called “Brass”—stationed us in Hawaiʻi. I had wanted to stay where we were, in Riverton, New Jersey, where at the tender age of ten I’d managed improbably to fall in love, with a future Olympic gymnast who sleekly towered above me by a good half of her head, on whose backyard trampoline we had often frolicked long into a firefly-illumined festival night, who sent me an enormous farewell card with an amusing bon-voyage Viking theme that for decades I could not recall without wanting to weep. I wouldn’t have wanted to live in the house we rented from a kindly if eccentric male nurse named Lannon, who lived in an unspacious annex above, and during his days off, when he wasn’t watching English soccer or asleep, tended the botanical preserve into which he’d converted the property, lush with coconuts, mango, papaya, an impressive tomato patch, vanilla plants, beehives, an herb garden, bougainvillea, red hibiscus, even nectarines, I wouldn’t have wanted to come even if I hadn’t been made to know from my first day on the pathetic cramped campus of Saint Anthony’s School that I was not so much unwelcome as hated for the offense of my presence in possession of a robust Irish nose and pale haole skin. That the halcyon strolls home from school with my powerful beau, sharing an ice cream or Clear Pepsi under tree-canopied Main Street were as long gone as they felt when I watched Mt. Olomana’s virescent crags scroll past our minivan on the brief awful commute to school. I would hope that my children, now, were I fool enough to reproduce, would possess the good sense and lack the parochial bad form to conflate large-order scheme with each particular case, should for example some Chinese son of a dispatched Colonial Guard find himself the lone representative of an unpopular race in our pocket of the Empire, but perhaps they would visit on that hapless deracinated lad the same misguided cruelty I tasted, as a pre-teen with no ambition but to get away from Oʻahu as soon as I could.
And Akana alone refused to succumb to cheap spite and the easy abuse of a weakling who conveniently counted as one of Them. However I do not intend to devote further space in these notes, the last I will compose, to this topic. I have little interest in surveying the sites of psychic wreckage long since razed and improved upon with time. I share the opinion of my father, god bless the long-dead, who held that the irruption into an otherwise placid—one might even go so far as to say feeble or effete—childhood of a brief bit of blunt interpersonal trauma (and in his opinion “trauma” was overstating the case), not only was good for me, but in fact constituted a critical contribution to my development into a man. And of course we were gone again in three years, the careers of American servicemen during that last stretch of imperialist reach were nothing if not itinerant, and whether the time I spent as an unprepared boy tasting the reciprocal wrath of indigenous peoples under the colonial project’s coarse thumb that is so widely commented on, now from the other side of the divide, but back then was rather rarely experienced firsthand, was good for me or on the contrary left my psyche indelibly marred, as more than one lover has presumed to remark, soon enough we were gone.
Because it is not of me that I wish to speak now: not at all! I was many-thousand miles away when Christopher Ke’alohapauole Akana began his conquest of Honolulu’s Interscholastic League. It’s true that as a high school student I’d tracked his ILH triumphs from afar, as well as I could, via Honolulu Star Bulletin content posted on the so-called “Web,” read about the scoring records, the widely remarked upon humility, the myriad on-court feats described in prose less than up to the task by local sports-writers on the high school beat, the dunks his teammates indulged the timeless male urge to name by christening with insular idiocies I decline to reproduce, though I deliberated appending a catalog as a footnote to Chapter XIV of the Life, true that I’d often imagined Chris during those uprooted years in Washington D.C., where I didn’t necessarily dislike the cosmopolitan children of strivers and technocratic elite but rarely made close friends—imagined that instead of leaving, my father had been allowed, as he’d wanted despite my desires, to stay, that I’d followed Chris and forged a better friendship at Damien Memorial, the ramshackle Catholic secondary school for young men he’d surprisingly, situated as it was in unscenic, indigent, and menacing Kalihi, decided to attend, a school where the same infirm Christian Brothers who now tottered blankly down hallways heading the wrong way, and in class adjusted their hearing aids in futile hopes of parsing a student’s rude quip, had in decades past been known to beat unruly enrollees with belts. Yes, in my early teens it was perhaps natural that I thought of him often. But I cannot account for the recurring visions frequently, not to say nightly, visited upon me as time continued to pass: of heroic Chris Akana, now nearly a man annihilating opponents, first on the basketball court, then—after I’d learned of his incomprehensible choice to postpone the glory awaiting his entrance into the NCAA and enlist, in the United States Army, to participate in that dubious retribution exacted against the peasant populations of what was then still called the Persian Gulf—on desert battlefields I could scarcely imagine even with copious multimedia aid, springing over many an improvised explosive device and serial-bayoneting ranks of turbaned men armed with those curvaceous automatic rifles popular among armed forces in late-era Hollywood action cinema set in the then so-called “Middle East.” I was of course not yet politically aware, and perhaps ought to have observed the audacious courage’s tinge of bravado, the ill-considered xenophobic zeal, not to mention the irony of a U.S.-oppressed region’s proud native son risking his blood for the conquering nation’s flag; but at eighteen I could feel nothing but awe for a young man with such endless promise postponing his own coronation to serve, the honor in declaring that his beloved Uncle Chan, convalescent at Tripler Army-Med, who’d more or less raised him in the stead of a long-perished dad, hadn’t lost the use of his left foot in vain. Later, of course, when I learned that he had not actually killed a single soldier—though he’d wounded one at close quarters with a rifle-butt to the head, plus saved two platoons when he spotted an I.E.D. in his reconnoitering caravan’s path at the last possible second—it was with some moral relief. I followed accounts of his battlefield courage interspersed with breathless testimonials to his ever-progressing “game,” sometimes going so far as to literally pant with excitement over the rumors that the roughneck intensity of military athletics was only refining his play, that he was now dominating not merely men but furthermore men who killed, just as in high school he’d crushed all adolescent adversaries in the Interscholastic League. I could hardly wait to see what he might accomplish upon making an unscathed return, yet in the meantime my future had begun to unveil its comparatively serene face: the directionless boy had given way to a burgeoning scholar possessed of a potent, rapacious mind—a development that surprised even me. I zoomed into my post-graduate work, and, it’s true, faithfully tracked the returned King’s coincident collegiate career, the stunning decision to attend his home state’s own “U.H.,” the ease with which he reversed the fortunes of that theretofore woebegone program, but I was preparing to make my own humble mark, and I certainly never thought it would have anything to do with Chris.
How is it, then, that he continued to exert such a pull on my imagination? Indeed, I could think of little else but him, so that when I first heard tell of the catastrophe, as a young man, having waded deep into the murk of that irascibly vapid exercise in intellectual vanity, the doctoral thesis—mine was a tedious monograph on aspects of Franz Kafka’s syntax—on completion of which I’d at last be poised to enter the realm of belles-lettres where it was my burgeoning dream to form from the raw material of late-noted literary skill a kind of monumental career—oh yes, I’d at last allowed myself to dream, going so far in certain private journal entries as to announce my ambitions to become a kind of scholar king, though the specifics of this sovereignty were for the time being not entirely clear—how is it I should have found my obsession so grossly distended that one night less than a week after I’d learned of the Akana saga’s strange new sad twist, I would lurch from my bed several hours of sleeplessness into one more haunted night, determined at once to abandon my studies, and return to the island setting of that brief unhappy stage of my youth?
It was only natural—indeed, perhaps unavoidable—that in undertaking my work I should cross paths with Jon Callahan, as our mutual interest in Akana was the node at which our respective projects were bound to intersect. “Intersect” is the very word: for though our subject was the same, our approaches to and indeed our very visions of the works that would bear his noble name could not have been more unalike. Where I intended—and on a number of separate occasions over the subsequent years of labor during which I devoted the whole of my passion, all my vitality, in truth my very life to, nearly completed—a meticulous, conclusive biography, aimed to render without obfuscation or supernumerary art the full scope and measure of what I had come to think of as that rarest of beasts: a genuine tragedy; he, first as a would-be film-auteur, then as the author of that illusive novel he hoped to salvage from the scatter of an unfilmed screenplay’s mountainous reams, intended to scavenge and recast as the offspring of his own genius a story that called for no ornamentation or indeed the slightest alteration in order to justify its punishing claims on the soul.
From the first I heard of this interloping text one evening at a dismal franchise “family restaurant,” and my scoffing at the egregious title gave way to a stunned understanding that the young buffoon was not in jest, I was of course displeased, but I was nowhere near as wary as I discovered, much too late, I should have been. That this supposed work was from the outset destined to fail was plain to all parties but one; and indeed, over the years of our correspondence and uneasy forbearance—“friendship,” as he preposterously had it, naturally being too far, though hyperbole was to the last the unhappy man’s preferred rhetorical ploy—I have not infrequently wondered whether even he knew he would never finish his supposed work, just as he also seemed from the start to suspect, despite all the obvious indications that my Akana would one day vault like its acrobatic namesake into the very welkin of scholarly fame, where it would vindicate the untold and in truth utterly untellable sacrifice I made to its ultimate perfection, that my efforts would likewise come to nil.
For it struck me that if he could doubt my triumph, even then, when any sane observer would have wagered his net worth on my eventual success—and he never so much as pretended to conceal his doubts of my talent, his doubts were nothing if not frank—then he surely must have known how preposterous his own visions were, must have suspected, under the preening and outrageous declarations of intent (including, naturally, but by all means not limited to the so-called manifesto on which his entire posthumous reputation would prove to rest: for even in private he was a monstrous comedian of rodomontade; how many nights did we annihilate in Oʻahu’s faux-izakayas then in vogue, our conversation not so much inevitably returning to as never drifting far from the topics of our separate life-works, and even as his face began to color and sag with the nightly, then daily and nightly, then towards the end incessant weathering with cheap ferment, he rarely failed to conclude, in the end, that “The Consummation of Chris: The Once and Future King” would be his grand success, that everything would change once he was able to bring the work to light), indeed he must have known he was destined to fail.
Because he was born to fail. He had been a failure all his life. For Callahan failure was a way of life. On this point and perhaps this point alone did we manage to agree. Where we diverged on future prospects for a reversal of Fate, we both agreed that in his present condition, which I of course saw perfectly well was to be his permanent state, failure was the essential fact of his life. Callahan was failure. If you could separate the failure from the Callahan—but you couldn’t: the failure was the man. We were in perfect accord on this point, he’d often go so far as to compose limericks and light verse celebrating the grim consistency of his myriad weaknesses and fallings-short, though he persisted in pretending to believe there was hope. In truth I understood even then that it was our common concern with failure that drove us to converge upon our common subject: my Ke’alohapauole, his fictive “Chris.” But where I saw in Akana’s fall the shadow of a true cosmic horror, unspeakably vindictive and cruel, a Shakespearean tragic reversal of Fate in that salvo of multiple ligaments blown—as I have heard the brutal incident described by a number of spectators in attendance that day, though Akana himself steadfastly claimed to have lost all other sensory facts to the unspeakable pain—where I saw the crumpling to earth of the great man’s career pantomimed with excruciating precision in his wilting with the devastated leg, where I read with heartbreak of the abrupt disappearance into the rainforests or mountains within which it was at that time still somewhat possible to disappear, and assumed, along with most other observers that like a terminally afflicted wild beast he had dragged himself off to die, and was therefore overjoyed, if saddened, to read of the limping stoic return, the doomed courageous quest for rehabilitation and redemption that laid such a claim on my heart I simply needed to return; Callahan seemed almost to relish the cruelty, perceived a kind of epic perfection or justice, because he lived to see the mighty laid low—no doubt, I from the outset perceived, because it allowed him to hope for some weakling’s commensurate rise.
I would sometimes catch him smiling faintly as Akana hobbled through his convalescent pick-up games, gamely favoring the good leg, but scarcely able now at the height of even his highest leap to graze the bottom of the rim. But Callahan approved of his so-called friend’s demise, was all too eager to transform tragedy into art, to melt a broken man’s actual pain down into some unholy alloy from which he would erect an artistic monument to himself.
If we hadn’t both known he was destined to fail I would no doubt have given more strenuous voice to my distaste for, indeed my outright disgust with, the gross immorality of such a scheme; if I had not seen the pitiful inebriate depths to which he’d descended by the time the so-called “manifesto” appeared, the slobbering incapacity from which I knew no novelist would ever ascend, I would have contributed to the subsequent hullabaloo and, as it was erroneously described, “discourse” stirred up by his jejune protestations in that shameless text, much more than the odd anonymous letter-to-the-editor of gentle, if stern, rebuke. That my admonishments went unremarked upon at the time save for the odd whiplash of hysterical advocacy, and were never subsequently exhumed and reconsidered as the decades piled over the self-martyr’s name, naturally did nothing to confirm for me the herd-like vapidity and breathless indifference to genuine insight among the so-called literary elite, as these are points I never needed confirmed and have of course seen borne out beyond even the grim expectations of a clear-eyed observer in the subsequent levels of mindlessness to which the “culture” has since managed to descend.
Yes, Chris had been back from his pilgrimage of personal pain a mere two months when I finally persuaded his mother to allow us to meet. Already he’d pitched into the long rehabilitation interrupted on his disappearance almost a year back. I watched in consternation as he hurled himself against what was evidently an unbreachable wall. He would never again have the full use of that knee, and I foresaw the coming day when he would be tempted once again to take his own life. The thought saddened me beyond words, though it was words I would one day need somehow to summon, as I already foresaw the grim final note to my epic Life, and I struggled not to reveal my perception of the full hopelessness of his case. What made these already difficult months all the more difficult to bear were the long stretches of time I was forced to spend with Callahan, who, for reasons I was never able to see, Akana seemed to count among his closest friends. It was transparent that the bitter little man intended to use his supposed friend’s downfall for personal gain—Chris even knew about the supposedly ongoing work, but seemed not to care and indeed even went so far as to encourage his so-called efforts, now and again. Either he didn’t believe his “friend” was actually writing anything, a reasonable but as I saw potentially dangerous guess, or he was entirely unperturbed by the prospect of some gross mutation of his own person and narrative arc careering earthward in his friend’s brazen book. What’s more, though I’d tried to convey the full scope of what I intended to do on his behalf, Chris seemed all but indifferent, encouraging me, “No worries, brah,” whenever I would broach the tender topic, to write “whatevah you like.”
I wanted him to understand what my book would do for him, because the truth was I had come again to the island after over a decade away to see my old acquaintance in his disgrace as a way to make sense of the terrible turn his life had taken, to document the sheer scale of his fall from grace, I shared with the Ancients our belief that for a fall to be tragic it must be from Olympian heights: only the mighty can truly be vanquished by Fate; a servant’s death is a quiet misfortune; a King loses what most men never dream they might gain; I wanted to chronicle Akana’s courageous quest to salvage something from despair, even if in the end he could not—the sadness in permanent obliteration of Dreams: to communicate his essence as the classically tragic and in so doing, perhaps, I hoped, honor the noble endeavor to redeem from disgrace what might be redeemed.
Whereas Callahan propounded a kind of absolute nil that life was one long doomed struggle not to perceive. It was his dubious theory that each man’s success reflected his ability to deny or ignore the, as he had it, “void,” so that the greater a man’s tally of feats, the more should be your certainty he was a fool. The difference, he loved to declaim, between the quartet of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies (“middling,” he assessed the Bard, “but an instructive mediocrity”), perhaps shelved for good now in deference to the so-called Classics, but at the time still somewhat widely read, was only the age at which the protagonist’s eyes were unveiled—young wicked Macbeth pacing the battlements of his ill-starred keep looks into the same horror Lear at last perceives, betrayed by the very daughters to whom he’s ill-advisedly yielded his throne. Tragedy, he said, was the race’s sacred text, its very existence in the historical annals of rapacity, terror, and idiot need perhaps the one argument against his so-called “philosophy”’s imperative to renounce all of Life.
Lay Freudians of course transacted roundly in reductive speculation in the months following Callahan’s death that it was the failure that drove him in the end to self-extermination, when I, and anyone else who was there, knew full well its catalyst was the drink. He could barely form sentences aloud—let alone write them down—before several rounds of grim indulgence; coffee had ceased to do anything but churn his nerves, and he refused with a kind of blockheaded valor all other forms of intoxication, including even the mild amphetamines I had long relied on to stabilize my own often fluctuating moods, which I believe might well have saved his life. In truth it was success that killed him—not actual success, of course, which was impossible; but the idea that success might come as it were from the blue, on the heels of his “manifesto”’s shocking attention-suck was a notion, preposterous as it might have been, too awful to bear, so that the already-insupportable addiction now got especially out of hand, in the end he was literally able to do nothing but drink, and when I attempted to rouse him one evening by emptying a gentle stimulant capsule’s contents into his gin he was utterly unaffected, as if I’d merely squeezed in some more lime. Even then I tried to warn him off his ill-conceived endeavor, pointed out again and again that on the publication of my Life’s Volume the First, which I was on the brink of drawing to a close, any “novel” he’d constructed from half-fragments of our shared subject’s life would be exposed to withering criticism on all fronts, his motives would be hauled into light, and that therefore even should he achieve the impossible and suddenly surmount his inborn incapacity to finish the book he’d been ostensibly writing for nearly five years and was now given to citing simply as “King,” whatever unwelcome success he was suddenly thrust into would be almost immediately demolished by my book’s entrance into the world, so that where success was concerned he truly needn’t be concerned, and these ungainly delusions needn’t plunge him ever deeper into his calamitous drink.
But he was convinced. I could not show him reason or sense. I saw he was drinking himself to death, meanwhile hopelessly consumed with and slave-driven by a desperate ambition to see the work I tried all manner of schemes to acquire pages of but he was never in his life to let me glimpse completed and presented to a worshipful reading public, awed not only by the sheer immensity of talent alive in every sentence but furthermore by the improbability that such a literary force should emerge in full fulguration from the culturally barren Pacific backwater in which he’d been quietly getting by. Such was the intensity of his conviction that on nights my own work faltered even I found myself tempted to believe his delusions, though by morning the urge would of course have altogether vanished.
Meanwhile Chris ought to have been getting increasingly depressed. His stated intention was a full recovery, to work himself all the way back into shape and up to a shot at the “League,” as the American National Basketball Association was often imprecisely called in those days. By the third year of my second stay in the Aloha State, when I’d all but used up the endowment left me by an unfamiliar Great Aunt, god rest the &c., it was well understood by all that he not only never would play professional ball, but was unlikely even to jog without a noticeable limp. I remember watching the knee buckle under a routine lay-up attempt in a rather lackluster pick-up game at Mānoa’s “Gym 2,” saw a lanky but unskilled opponent—a California blond with obnoxious curly locks—rise up from behind and swat the ball off the green rubber protective strip, emit the conventional fierce bawl of male domination and beat his scrawny chest, as Akana stared in literal disbelief at the now out-of-bounds eight-panel ball, I saw that he must have felt as if the whole thing were a horrible dream. We may be nearing the end, I remember jotting in my notebook as I looked on at courtside that sad day. I dreaded the inevitable self-immolation, even though I was of course acutely conscious that the Life had begun to sputter out in the absence of an acceptable end. I even drafted a few preliminary sketches of notes toward the terrible eventuality—hanging, head in the oven, perhaps a noble leap from some Koʻolau peak, and so forth—though these I naturally kept to myself.
So that it was with something like disbelief that I witnessed his next transformation: Within a month of the very debacle I have just described he had taken a position as a P.E. teacher and basketball coach at his high school alma mater. More improbably still, he honestly seemed happy! I was amazed to discern how much he enjoyed being around and cared about these marginally talented and as a rule exceptionally stupid kids. I’d watch him pace up and down sidelines with his limp, shouting pidgin-inflected support; or he’d be on-court demonstrating proper free-throw form, whistling and hollering amendments to instructions as his charges picked up the complicated offensive schemes he devised ad hoc, bestowing the odd genial slap on a favored player’s butt, gathering the team on the abutting stairwell after practice for long, frequently philosophical chats about Being and Sport. I was of course overjoyed to observe this resuscitation of spirits, all of us were, but was less sure now than ever where the rest of my work should go. There was no end in sight for what I had come to see as my life’s great work, the masterpiece that would establish me as a literary force worthy of redoubt. I had, after all, put off a career for this, but what would I have to show for my courage? In my weakness I began to devote working hours to the old doctoral pages, grimly diagramming grammar in that depressed surrealist’s early tomes, thinking that if all failed I might at the very least salvage from them a comfortably-tenured post, all the while holding out hope that by some miracle the true-life tale would reach a conclusion worthy of its preceding arc.
And until I could finish my project I was inextricably caught up with the wretch. He was twenty-five on the day of our first formal introduction, a deliverer of pizza, short, still afflicted well into young manhood with terrible skin, and at twenty-eight the situation was largely the same. Many times during the doomed rehabilitation project he’d brought extra-large pies gratis to the UH annex-gym where our subject labored each day to work what life could be worked back into the leg (though long gone were the days when Chris could work through two pies). Now that Chris was healed as he would ever be and this new life had commenced, Callahan brought enough pizza post-practice Friday nights to satisfy the hunger of a whole varsity team. Akana even offered him a role as assistant coach, a position he wisely turned down, though not for the protested reason that it would take time from his work, but simply because he knew as much about basketball as Chris knew about books, perhaps less. I was allowed to attend practices, observe and take notes, but rare was the evening Chris so much as glanced up or waved when he spotted me striding to my favorite bleacher, aside from the days Callahan left work early to sit in, guzzling cans of off-label lager tucked into an unconvincing faux–soda can sheath, at which point Akana would trot limping over and affably converse at practically every water break.
The banter those two enjoyed! I cannot recall a single Callahan joke worthy of the name, yet how many times were the two of them doubled over, wheezing, almost in pain at the close of some sophomoric sequence of wisecracks? In the end, when he’d finally lost his job to the drink, or, as he claimed, elected to devote himself exclusively to his work, and stopped coming to practices at all, Akana seemed to feel less betrayed than saddened and concerned.
I saw clearly enough why such a pitiful figure would be drawn to a man like his good friend, Chris, but no corresponding motive for the reciprocated sympathies ever made sense. Believe me: I pressed my subject on the subject, but his genius for articulation was for the most part limited to the kinesthetic sphere; and I pressed Callahan when he was sober enough to be pressed, but could never settle upon a plausible interpretation of a relationship that was instead of the oleaginous admiration greeted with regal grace one would naturally expect, one of, as Akana put it himself, mutual respect. I quite frankly searched, from the first several months of my preliminary research all throughout that long sabbatical from the tedious labors to which I would eventually return in order to win my Ph.D., for a single characteristic worth tolerating, let alone according respect, but in vain! A vile, repellant, insufferable, sick man, who nevertheless was able to call Chris Akana his friend. The great mystery, the question I tussled with long into I do not know how many nights, was how these two could have possibly grown close: how, and, of course, why. I confess—it does me no good to prevaricate now, or even conceal—that I never saw much worth liking in him. One night mere months before I was to leave Oʻahu for good, at a forgettable bar in Mānoa—for once he hadn’t insisted on an izakaya—I broached the topic with my so-called rival, and we had, to the best of my weakening recall, something like the following interchange:
—But surely you realize how lucky you’ve been!
He simply couldn’t see how unlikely it was that the greatest athlete ever to walk the island shores he came to at the start of his sophomore year—a haole boy full of empty presumptions about both the culture he couldn’t be bothered to get to know and his own dubious worth—should befriend him, offer him an unconditional love, instantly sparing Callahan the unpleasantness that would have otherwise been his due in an unfriendly little Catholic school where his was only one of a half-dozen white faces, a point on which I was of course only too well-versed.
—Lucky! he roared. —Let me tell you about luck. He slammed a fist to table.
—Listen, he said, —my whole life I’ve just been biding time, I’ve been holding out, I’ve been waiting for the opportunity, the single chance—when it comes I’ll be sure to take it, believe me—I’ve been waiting for the opportune time to go mad.
A pause. Then:
—Not just anyone can go mad, of course. Any number of us would like to, maybe you, though I honestly doubt it, and of course there are many of us who’ve come to feel and maybe even deep down do believe we actually are mad, but it takes a rare character in the rarest of circumstances to elect and live out his madness, and I’ll tell you why:
He rose and began to pace, enormous stein in hand.
—Madness, he said, —that is, true separation, from everything, renunciation of everything, is a privilege only available to an elect few, possibly as few as one or two men each generation. This may be overstating it, but certainly the occurrence is quite rare. For instance, we place late Tolstoy in this camp, but not Jesus Christ, who was at the time of his death in my assessment still quite attached. Beseeching the Father and proclaiming mystical nonsense to fellow-condemned and so forth, you see. I’d like nothing more than to retire to some secretly located private real estate and spend several months pacing arcades, sipping costly, single-malt Scotch—the Scotch wouldn’t need to be costly, or even single-malt, but it would be—gradually losing myself to the full range, the absolute infinite range of mad speculation I’ve always known I’m capable of and in fact have desperately wanted to give myself over to, but have never been able to sufficiently distance myself from the bedlam of inanity that dominates a person, any person, or person is too strong here, a worm, say, too ensconced in his absolute wormdom and worm-concerns, considerations, vermicular preoccupations, occupations: for instance, the pizza-delivery service, to fully engage, you understand?
—Because the average worm’s circadian allotment of energy, ego, courage, will-to-power, verve, vitality, will be insufficient for all but the minimum asked—expected—demanded—of a worm, will be drained—exhausted—burned—consumed—by the diurnal idiot-mundane: How will the worm traverse this mound of sodden earth? How dodge the robins? Locate local epicenters of rot and decay? Or will the worm order take-out Chinese this evening, once again? What if it rains? Tomorrow, will there be boots to evade? Will it be possible to wriggle through another day?
—Whereas I want to plunge into impossibility, which is the only possible true thing, soar into no compromise, dispense with all lies, only true things, absolutes, once and for all to stop thinking worm thoughts. If you ever saw me smiling during this epoch it would be a pure smile, a perfect smile of malice and hate, you would not need to worry about hypocrisies or self-deceptions, because I’d be smiling into my face as reflected in a pool of bottomless pain, but no plunge is possible when the pizza needs to be delivered in five minutes or less, when several hundred cardboard boxes need to be folded in back, when there’s a dispute at the register over a coupon’s intentionally deceptive fine print, or when for instance the only way out of the pizza parlor you’ve decided—maybe the decision was unreasonable, maybe you had no right but it’s too late for second thoughts now—is to create something that will vindicate the absurd cockroachness—I’m changing my terms—of your whole preceding life, so that instead of being a slave to your manager at this franchised manufacturer of barely edible shit you’ve now become a slave to an equally vacuous only considerably more taxing, in its own way, new master, this need to make something that some group of potentates you can scarcely begin to conceive of will approve of enough to haul you the fuck out of here and into some new life that you almost certainly will commence with equal if not even greater distaste because the whole point was to disengage, cut away, finally grant yourself license to go mad, what else would any honest sane person possibly want, only now I’m of course only talking about the problem instead of even pretending to attempt to address it, talking only, talking and saying very little, I can see, he said, and he was of course right.
He was a horrible basketball player, and in high school the nepotistic sway of his friend alone had secured him the final slot on the Damien Monarchs’ varsity roster—Callahan himself coolly conceded as much to me, though Akana always refused to say—but I could naturally never persuade him to see this as the gift it had been. Many an evening I’d urged him to consider how many other young men must have pined for an opportunity like his. To wear the same colors as the best Hawaiian ever to play the beautiful game, “The King,” as local media had uninventively dubbed him even then, to run the same drills, stand in the same lay-up lines, catch your breath after wind-sprints alongside the heaving rex, learn a little something with each inspiring observation of his flights to the rim, work hard to contribute your share to the season-long labor of perfecting his championship team, perhaps earning an amicable slap on the rear after a particular hustle-display: the dived-for loose ball or well executed back-screen … the chance to sit on the same bench that the King would return to, all agleam with streams of regally fragrant sweat, to roar approbation, rising with the rest of the bench after each magisterial hoop—a good fifteen to twenty times even on what the great man might consider “off nights” … to “high-five,” or perhaps, as was then en vogue, bump fists … to study the jump-shot’s immaculate form, perhaps stay on late after practice with benevolent Chris for a little supplementary tutoring on that invaluable offensive technique, the “triple-threat” … to partake of the fraternal wassail at team-exclusive events … the kind of camaraderie for which many an American young man on the outside of the high school experience manufactured and peddled with relentless precision by an at-the-time almost oligarchic entertainment bloc would have given a great deal, but to the end Callahan seemed all but blind to his luck.
Why should he be pleased to clap politely for his preternatural friend’s exploits on-court, from his courtside vantage at the end of the bench? Why should he feel gratitude for propinquity to greatness when it served only to remind him he’d been denied at birth the right to be analogously great. I objected, quite often, that this kind of envy was at odds with his theatrical blasphemies against life—and that furthermore, might the exalted apologetics for death have as their rather obvious root a plain resentful greed, envy, an anger not with life itself, as he loved to lugubriously claim, but with his own particular case? On the evening in question I again tried to make a similar case, but he rushed on:
—I’ve fantasized for several years now about running away, he said, —into the mountains, maybe, or somewhere else, a cave—forget the estate, I don’t need it—either to invent a new language—ideally it would be a language consisting of nothing but howl, one unremitting howl until the lungs crumple under the strain and nothing is left to be sputtered up but a few gouts of blood, a new language in which to record a comprehensive accounting of my disgust—or else to die, or to invent the language and compile the notes and then to die, although the first part doesn’t really matter since nothing does. You think it’s madness and it is, but don’t worry: I won’t dare! I’d never dare, and I was lying a minute ago when I said I couldn’t afford it, if that’s something I actually said: of course I could, anyone can crawl off into a cave, but I wouldn’t, and neither would you.
His face was an uncanny aubergine; he paused to exchange his now-emptied stein for my glass of red wine.
—If you want to say anything about Chris in your book, then there’s one thing you should know: Chris Akana understood from maybe age seven or eight what he was put on this planet to do, and he did it. Until he ruined his knee he was going to live out the perfection of his inborn qualities, he was going to become what he was made to be, and I don’t need to tell you that it’s the rarest of men that ever manages that, am I right? Only what would have happened if he hadn’t lost the knee? What if he’d had better luck? What would he have become? What is consummation? What do you believe?
Within a week from the very evening in question, he would publish the so-called manifesto. Within a week, improbable as it would have seemed to me then, his name, and, less probably still, his idea would be widely discussed in the literary domain, not for its demonstration in a book but for this manifesto about a book.
—All of life is a contest between being and the will to death, he concluded in the bar, —suicide is the only true impulse, madness is clarity, the only clarity, final elimination of veils over the main question, the only true question, Do I kill myself today? People live by seeking distractions from the pain that is what life’s all about, so that when I say I want to go mad, what I mean is I want to discard all distractions from the pain. In fact before the manifesto—
—What manifesto, I asked, alarmed, but he seemed at this point utterly unable to hear anything but his own slurring words:
—I believed some extremely stupid things, he said, —I thought I would accomplish something, do something great, I thought I would beat life by earning the kind of love that, yes, our friend has received his whole life, but that he has also been able to give, I hope there’s a passage in your book devoted to his kindness, his decency, his compassion, his generosity, his love, I could tell you stories about random acts of kindness I’ve seen him perform, for no good reason, he’s the most decent man I’ve ever met, but for years I thought, He’s only so good out of gratitude, he understands his good luck and has the good sense to appreciate what he has, I thought, and I thought, If I could find a greatness of my own, then I would be grateful too, I’d learn to live with compassion, I’d learn to love, but I understood only as I was drafting the manifesto that I was wrong—
—it would never be enough, that where an Akana could lose his gift or monument, could have his greatness taken away from him, in an instant, so that it was only a memory to taunt him, torment him, to absolutely terrify him at night, as I know he is tortured almost every night, though he very seldom so much as mentions, let alone discusses it, he could have his greatness demolished or obliterated and yet still love, I could gain greatness, I could build an even taller monument to myself, but not learn how to love, on the contrary, not only would I not stop detesting every distraction from the only question that’s mattered to me all my life, not only would I be less inclined to retreat into my cave in order to go really mad, at last, I would in fact finally have discarded the final impediment or final distraction, the final lie inhibiting me from getting down to business and really asking honestly whether the time was finally right—now I would have done away with the only remaining lie, the idiotic idea that somehow things will be different on the other side of my achievement, because I see now that I could learn compassion, I could never learn to love, because unlike Chris Akana it’s impossible for me to care about anything other than myself—
I am old and have very little left to say.
Here are the particular quoted lines from the manifesto that I singled out in one anonymous letter to the editor of a prominent quarterly.
“We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison”—
The work of art is of course such a key: The only justification for the work of art is this liberating commiseration in pain, it creates a moment of unity shared across time between maker and partaker of the work, it is a gift to the reader or hearer or watcher or feeler, an emergency transmission saying You aren’t alone, pain is here, too: it is a kind of communion. Art that sets out with this as its aim is good Art, to the extent that anything can be called good, and any so-called “art” that aspires to anything else is a shell-game, fraud, a lie.
For this reason, I can’t conscience the publication or distribution of my book, which I have written at least under the pretense of believing is a work of Art—that is, a work of compassion and love—because when I am honest with myself I realize that the key I want to fashion is intended only for the locked keyhole confining me within myself.
I know that though I have tried to write my book as a kind of gift, a love letter, if you will, to the spirit of a friend who has shown me only love, I want not only to give, but also to be rewarded for what I’ve done, I want to be told that I am good, that I am whole, that I am worthy of love, and this renders my work a lie, and so when I finish it, and of course the great irony is, having decided to throw it away, I now discover that I will be able to finish, at last, I cannot bear to share it with the world, a gift is not a gift when it’s given in the hopes of getting something back.
I now quote myself, though I never dared reveal the true authorship of this broadside to him, not even when he said he’d read some anonymous letter-to-the-editor, a sole dissenting voice in the storm of encouragement and praise, read the letter countless times, and was crushed, not by the denunciation itself but because—his words—it was the truth:
He was undoubtedly pleased when his “friend” blew out his knee, I said.
If it exists—a dubious prospect—The Consummation of Chris: The Once and Future King is pure Schadenfreude. That he has spoken so ostensibly “nakedly,” with “self-lacerating pain,” to quote one of many such tedious responses, about the dubious motivations behind writing a book inspired by the suffering of his so-called friend, in the late stages of the so-called “manifesto,” that he has “laid bare” the mercenary aim undermining the supposed “agápē” he claims first drove him to attempt a work of art “imbued” with his good “friend”’s genuine pain is nothing if not a remarkably direct enactment of the very kind of monomaniacal desperation he claims to “renounce.” How could anyone fail to discern that, as published in such a prestigious venue, his supposed protestations against the “bad art” that serves the artist’s vanity or career are themselves a brilliant attention-mustering ploy? What does his declaring that the book, if it’s ever finished, may never see the light of day, accomplish except to excite precisely the sort of attention he claims is anathema to this supposed true spirit of Art? The eagerness professed by the commentariat to see a book written by someone so earnestly impassioned about an honest answer to the ageless question, What is Art? is proof of the dishonesty of the entire piece: The whole thing is an ugly, tawdry, cheap, posturing lie that ought to have been dismantled and discarded, at the very least ignored, not subjected to these endless rounds of praise.
Look through specious blather about the true work of Art as compassion, the endeavor to imagine yourself into another man’s suffering and pain, art as our only available means to express the one redeeming feature of our humanity, &c. ad nauseam, and see the facts: This “manifesto”-cum-confession is nothing more than a gambit for glory and fame on the part of a desperate man who’s hungered for it all of his life—if there is a manuscript, this supposed “manifesto” gives it the lie: it isn’t the act of compassion its author argues so strenuously for here: not love but a desperate endeavor to be loved, a last cry for pity from someone who feels he’s been deprived throughout his life. That he has attained a measure of what he was after all along through this chicanery is grotesquely ironic, and sad. In bringing this out before the book it supposedly rejects—an eventuality we can perhaps now assume will be in the offing—he makes use of his “friend”’s misfortune not once, but twice.
And yet at Callahan’s funeral Akana wept, the only time I ever saw him shed a tear, never, not once during the entire failed rehabilitation did he show any sign of the pain. He read without comment from the poem Callahan had quoted in his screed. He said he would miss his friend. Though for the near decade I wrestled intermittently with writings beyond the narrow scope of my own scholarly work I still clung to the idea that I might make a name for myself outside of the tiny circle of academics who read the odd article published in various Kafka quarterlies and such, in truth I abandoned it in Hawaiʻi on the night I made a modest bonfire on Kailua Beach, out past the pines, and watched the two volume Life combust. And at any rate, when swift political collapse effectively converted to ex-pats on the cultural margin our whole literary community, giants and failures alike, any hopes I’d allowed to linger on, which, if I am to be honest here, at last, I suppose I should admit were tiny indeed, were gone.
I have lived quietly and in truth quite unhappily all my life, I am old now but not any less unsatisfied, and it is along such lines that I’d thought I wanted to end, when I set out to write these notes: All my life I’ve been aware that I might have been a man of stature, that I might have earned a full arena’s roar. Instead I am in the end left to compile these pages, in a tongue less people speak every year, one last fruitless grasp at vanity, so that posterity will have some assistance in the unlikely event that it cares to make sense of the futility that swallowed an at-one-time promising life. I thought I’d carry on like this for as long as I had rage, perhaps fill enough pages to equal the thousands lost on Kailua Beach, but now I come to the point and find that my will is gone.
Because he actually did write his book. Dedicated To Chris. No one else has ever read it—he left the lone copy at my apartment on the very night he took his own life, appended to the manuscript a single sheet of instructions I have, for reasons I’ve spent my whole life trying to comprehend, followed, and am now executing the last of tonight, when I ask that the reader of these last notes of mine, should any such reader exist, proceed to the manuscript in the sealed carton to be found beneath these closing thoughts, rechristened per its author’s final wish, Christopher Ke’alohapauole Akana: A Life.
Jonathan Callahan’s first book, The Consummation of Dirk, won Starcherone Press’ eighth Prize for Innovative Fiction and is a finalist for a ForeWord Reviews’ 2013 Book of the Year Award. His writing can be found in Witness, The Collagist, Pank, The Millions, Fiction Writers Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Sunnyside, Queens. Feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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