Ransom Author Jay McInerney By Jay McInerney


Ransom, Jay McInerney's second novel, belongs to the distinguished tradition of novels about exile. Living in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, Christopher Ransom seeks a purity and simplicity he could not find at home, and tries to exorcise the terror he encountered earlier in his travels—a blur of violence and death at the Khyber Pass. Ransom has managed to regain control, chiefly through the rigors of karate.

Supporting himself by teaching English to eager Japanese businessmen, he finds company with impresario Miles Ryder and fellow expatriates whose headquarters is Buffalo Rome, a blues-bar that satisfies the hearty local appetite for Americana and accommodates the drifters pouring through Asia in the years immediately after the fall of Vietnam. Increasingly, Ransom and his circle are threatened, by everything they thought they had left behind, in a sequence of events whose consequences Ransom can forestall but cannot change.

Jay McInerney details the pattern of adventure and disillusionment that leads Christopher Ransom toward an inevitable reckoning with his fate—in a novel of grand scale and serious implications. Ransom Author Jay McInerney

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I was ready to give this a very positive review, to recommend it to my friends, until the last chapter. The book had that sense of insincere noir that's hard to hate. The easy jokes about Japanese English were there, but nothing overtly offensive. The characters were interesting, fun to be around/fun to hate. But that conclusion! So very disappointing, so anti-climactic.
But I suppose that fulfills a realistic ending to the very apathetic, aimless protagonist. In many ways I found Ransom himself to fit into the same mold of Murakami Haruki's protagonists: largely opinion-less in conversation, wandering around, staying out of conflict but finding themselves in the middle of it. All that said, I found the flashback story to be extremely interesting, and probably explains the disappointment of the conclusion. So maybe it's not the conclusion that's disappointing in the end. Maybe it's just the character. Maybe it's just Ransom's nihilism, his sadness in the face of possible joy. It just hurts to think about. And, in that, it's a very well-written character, and a very well-written narrative. Literature Fiction

I read this novel set in Kyoto, Japan featuring 26-year old American Christopher Ransom and his practice of martial arts three time when first published as part of the Vintage Contemporary series back in 1988 and I just did read it yet again. Why do I find this book so absolutely fascinating? On reflection, here are a dozen reasons:

Mishima-like Purity
Yukio Mishama’s novel “Runaway Horses” takes place in 1932 and features 19-year old Isao Iinuma who seeks purity through the code of the samurai and his practice of martial arts. Eventually, in the name of purity, Isao commits seppuku (ritual suicide). McInerney’s main character Ransom (he doesn’t use Christopher since he hates the name) in many ways seeks a similar purity and transcendence, a purity separating himself from everyone and everything. Being a Westerner and living in a commercialized, homogenized, media-obsessed 1977 world culture makes Ransom’s quest a study in stark contrasts.

The Power of Dad
More than anything else, Ransom wants to separate himself from the secret schemes and theatrical power plays devised by his father in an attempt to manipulate his life. Meanwhile, his dad, Christopher Ransom Sr. (the big reason Ransom hates the name Christopher) tells his son directly, “You needs a certain kind of knowledge and power working for you.” Ransom doesn’t buy any of it since he sees his father as a serious artist and playwright who sold out to become a rich, big-time Hollywood producer of crap TV shows.

The Way of the Martial Artist
Ransom considered joining a Zen temple but found something even better – an impressive sensei running a karate dojo. Ransom believed he would become a different person if he kept training in karate under his sensei, that he could achieve self-mastery that would, among other benefits, reduce the complexity of his interacting with others. However, as it turned out, this sensei was one tough cookie, holding practice out on an asphalt parking lot, allowing kicks and punches to the head and insisting that a follower of the martial arts never break off an attack, no matter how weak or injured his opponent.

The Monk as Martial Artist
Ransom particularly admires Ito, the top student in the dojo, a karate student he sees as having the demeanor of a monk on Quaaludes, that is, as someone capable of always resting in his own peaceful center even when engaging in martial combat. By Ransom’s eye, Ito the monk moves like a cat floating on air and embodies greater possibilities than simply a champion excelling in a sport.

The Shadow Side of Martial Arts
Big, bulky Oklahoma born and bred Frank DeVito, ex-Marine, current Bruce Lee clone, needs combat for self-definition; as he observes: everything is real and alive when you are fighting. Not surprisingly, DeVito labels nearly everybody he sees, including Ransom, as prime enemies who must be conquered and destroyed. To his credit, Jay McInerney portrays Frank DeVito not only as the prototypical ugly American but also as a fully rounded character. Reading about Frank’s lowlife is a highlight of the story.

East meets West
Ransom’s friend Miles sells cowboy hat and cowboy boots and other American West paraphernalia to the Japanese, who can’t get enough of imitating American culture, even things like singing American jazz and American blues with a Japanese accent - one of the more humorous aspects of Jay’s novel. And there are a number of cultural zingers, for example, when Ransom spots a photo of his Japanese taxi driver with his arm around a prize American he once gave a ride in his taxi. And whose face did Ransom see in the photo? As Ransom tells us with wry humor: “There he is, Jack Nicklaus, a baby-faced god and credit to his race.”

Femme Fatale, sort of
Meet Marilyn, ravishing young lady and nightclub singer fresh from Vietnam, a lady tangled up with the Japanese mafia and in need of some serious help. Marilyn turns to Ransom, a man who can’t stand to see a damsel in distress, particularly when her distress could impact his friend Miles.

English for the Japanese
Ransom’s part-time job is teaching English to Japanese businessmen. The book is filled with American English rendered in tawdry Japanese, as in the writing on a high-end fashion shopping bag printed to resemble an English dictionary definition: “FUNKY BABE: Let’s call a funky girl “Funky Babe.” Girl, open-minded, know how to swing. Love to feel everything rather than think. They must all be nice girls.” Enough to drive a seeker of purity to drink, if that seeker drinks. Ransom usually does not.

Heartbreak on the Pakistan Border
4 of the book’s 31 chapters are set in 1975 Pakistan where Ransom is traveling with two fellow Westerners, one of which is Annette, a remarkably alive, dreamy blonde young French lady who picked up an addiction to heroin. And the more Annette spirals down into self-destruction as a junky, the more Ransom’s heart breaks. This Pakistan tragedy adds real depth of feeling to Ransom’s life unfolding in Japan.

Friendship on the Pakistan Border
The other Westerner forming this Pakistan threesome is Ransom’s friend, a delightful, happy-go-lucky young man by the name of Ian. Ian is a bold adventurer and travels solo into dangerous terrain to score some great dope and a part of Ransom travels with him. Again, the unfolding drama in Pakistan adds much depth.

Language and Rhythm
The language is crisp and clear; the sentences snap off like a string of Japanese firecrackers, which makes for a very pleasurable, entertaining read. This quality of Jay’s writing makes sense since the author honed his craft under the tutelage of the late 20th century master of crisp and clear - Raymond Carver.

Twists Both Unexpected and Expected
Yes, the story is filled with twists, both unexpected and expected – expected in the sense that at one point Ransom acknowledges: “Some things wouldn’t go away unless you face them head—on.” Sound like a dose of Eastern fatalism? You bet it does. Read all about it. Literature Fiction Wow did I of all people not know that Jay McInerney wrote a novel about expats in Japan?

When I came across a used copy of Ransom recently, I had to read it. I think it's very much worth reading, but for the literary brat pack author's second novel it doesn't hold up well compared to his unique debut with Bright Lights, Big City.

The eponymous character Ransom is interesting, a rich kid running away by studying martial arts in 1970s Japan, is somewhat intriguing although indulgent. Lots of observations on the Japan scene from expats to locals (and lots of bad Engrish), with Vietnamese refugees looming as well.

Much of it did ring true, and McInerney seems to know his stuff when it comes to Japan. But the martial arts aspect didn't interest me, too much of how cool is for a white guy to work hard to train under a sensei. The plot with Ransom's family didn't engage me either. Overall, lots of snippets were good but as a novel I am left uncaring. Perhaps an anthology about the weird 70s Kyoto scene would have been better.

Still, as expat literature goes it is definitely required reading for historical reasons if nothing else. Literature Fiction So good until the final chapter basically ruins the entire book. Literature Fiction The ending aside, I quite enjoyed the listless, foreign, and even detached style of the book. Literature Fiction

This book definitely had the mid-eighties, over-confident American vibe to it. A friend attending Dartmouth College recommended it to me. Many Americans, myself included, were in awe of the rise of Japan's industrial might, and this book allowed folks who couldn't actually travel to Japan to enjoy the experience vicariously. A nice period piece, for sure. Literature Fiction In the 80s, everything Japanese was cooler, and there were lots of books about American expats finding themselves by going to Asia and learning Asian martial arts and Asian philosophy and basically being more Asian than the Asians. So this is about an American expat who hangs around with other expats even though he's gone native in Japan. It's got a decent pace and better-than-average writing, but the story was self-indulgent (like the main character), and an ending that left me thinking that the entire book was pretty pointless. Literature Fiction I had a hard time getting over the fact that this book set in Japan would be about an American’s obsession with karate. I greatly preferred Story of My Life, a book in which McInerney makes a virtue of his general interest in shallow themes. Literature Fiction I've read all but one of McInerney's books now, and this is the only one I've really disliked. Too much martial arts, a pretty half-baked story, and one shitty ending add up to a bunch of blah blah blah. It did get me real interested in going to Kyoto though. Literature Fiction It was almost good and then the end was incredibly, offensively stupid. Whoever blurbed it as “brilliant” should lose their job. Literature Fiction