For a guy who rarely leaves his own block, Toru Okada, the decent, if hapless, hero of Haruki Murakami's new novel, "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," has a lot of adventures. At the book's beginning, he's left his job as a paralegal and spends his days reading and cooking dinner for his magazine editor wife. First, an obscene phone call from a woman who seems to know him awfully well disrupts his sleepy routine. Then he meets Malta Kano, an enigmatic psychic who's supposedly searching for his lost cat; her sister, Creta, who dresses like Jackie Kennedy and relates a life history of overwhelming physical pain, attempted suicide, prostitution and a traumatic encounter with Toru's sinister brother-in-law, Noboru Wataya; Lt. Mamiya, a WWII vet who tells him of the atrocities he witnessed on the Mongolian front and Soviet prison camps; and, eventually, an extremely well-dressed mother-son duo who introduce him to an unusual way of making lots of cash. When he needs a break, he pals around with the 16-year-old girl who lives down the street -- or mulls things over while sitting at the bottom of a dry well behind a vacant house.
Murakami is that unusual creature, a metaphysical novelist with a warm, down-to-earth voice and a knack for creating credible characters and spinning a lively yarn. Best known in this country for his 1989 novel "A Wild Sheep Chase," Murakami leavens the arresting philosophical symbolism of modern Japanese fiction with a goofy sensibility shaped by American pop culture -- he's like Paul Auster with a heart and a sense of humor. From the beginning, "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" has the easy authority of the work of a natural-born storyteller, and each eccentric character and odd development only adds to the anticipation that Murakami will tie it all up in a satisfying resolution. He expertly twines themes of suffering and inner emptiness with Toru's covert battle against the evil Noboru Wataya, an economic pundit of slippery charisma. Profoundly vacant, Wataya realizes that "consistency and an established worldview were excess baggage in the intellectual mobile warfare that flared up in the mass media's tiny time segments." He parlays this cunning into a political career, of course. Wataya is the precise opposite of the humble Toru, and at first this appears to be the sole source of their antipathy.
The first 600 pages of "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" offer much unadulterated reading pleasure, and it's only as the remaining pages grow ominously sparse that the proverbial sinking feeling sets in. Even if he does provide for Toru, Murakami can't, in the end, gather all his novel's intriguing subplots and mysterious minor characters together convincingly, and he summarily drops whole handfuls of loose ends. Like the mark in a brilliant con game, I closed "The Wind-up Bird Chronicle" feeling somewhat bereft, but still so dazzled by Murakami's skill that I couldn't quite regret having come along for the ride.