"Crawling at Night" by Nani Power

In this complex, erotic new novel, Asian and Western characters pursue desire's mysterious byways.

Published April 5, 2001 2:00AM (EDT)

The title of Nani Power's remarkable debut novel is explained in that novel's epigraph as "an antiquated expression born of the Japanese farmer's tradition of accommodating large groups of overnight visitors on futons across the floor." Apparently, a gentleman visitor interested in sharing a strange lady's futon could tactfully cover his face with a cloth and crawl in with her. If rejected, he could return to his futon in dignified anonymity, "at least in theory." It's a wonderful and civilized notion, striking in its combination of delicacy and good-natured bluntness, and it is an apt introduction to Power's novel -- although few of her characters make their exit with dignity or anonymity intact.

The action of "Crawling At Night" takes place during a jumbled, alcohol-saturated 48 hours in Lower Manhattan; the story is a dramatic multicharacter collision of personality, culture and circumstance that is as much about emotion and memory as it is about events. The main characters are Ito, an aged, lonely Japanese sushi chef with a complex inner life that he has no language to articulate to those around him, and Mariane, an aging, alcoholic sexpot waitress who would prefer that her inner life remain as unarticulated as possible, even to herself. Although she is no longer pretty, Ito has a crush on Mariane because her raw femaleness reminds him of a young Chinese prostitute he used to love, and because his sense of her hardship rouses him emotionally.

She also attracts Yoshi, the owner of the restaurant, although much more simply -- during a moment of drunken flirtation after closing, he lunges at her, mistaking her protests for a sexy game until it is too late. Both feel shamed by the incident, each blames the other, and Mariane's days at the restaurant are thenceforth numbered. Not knowing any of this, Ito works up the nerve to ask Mariane to dinner at his house, an event for which he prepares with painstaking care only to be stood up because his date has lapsed into a drunken stupor in her bath. The next night at work, Yoshi fires Mariane before Ito can confront her, and the novel's events are set in motion; Mariane is off in pursuit of oblivion and Ito is off in pursuit of Mariane.

As the narrative follows them, the story blends past and present, changing point of view with poignant effects, widening and narrowing its scope, deepening its texture with vivid secondary characters. Among the most engaging of these characters are Ling Yu, a tough, elegant young hooker Ito meets in a Chinese club, and Ton, her semiretarded Vietnamese boyfriend, an innocent soul who sweeps the floor in the restaurant where Ling's father first pimped her out. Ms. Power has a gift for quick characterizations that layer oppositional qualities with subtlety and intensity; her portrayal of the prematurely experienced young girl's seduction of Ton is lovely, gentle and deliciously crude. Ton is a great Elvis fan, and so Ling cleverly evokes the King:

"You know what Elvis really liked?" His boom box played "Jailhouse Rock."

"No, what." His eyes lit up.

"He liked to be naked with women. He liked to touch them, and they touched him."

"H-He did? Are you sure?"

"Oh, sure. Everybody knows this. You want to try?"

We went to the broom closet. I took off my dress with blue flowers. I only had red silk underwear on, no bra, because sometimes Mr. Chang liked me on Fridays. I peeled off his clothes and he was grunting slowly. His item was flat against his stomach, it was so hard.

"What did Elvis do?" He was breathing hard.

"Well, he liked to do this."

This tender comedy becomes coarse ("His eyes were bulging as he came, his mouth held hard and pulled back to his gums"), then sensual ("He would kiss my hair and call me little bird in Vietnamese. He brought me metal tins of curried frog legs and rice, fresh spring rolls with rice wrappers, shadows of shrimp and cilantro underneath.") and then mysterious ("Sometimes, he made odd sounds and shushed me away or swept all day and didn't answer my words").

Although the most obvious emotional tone in the book is one of sorrow and loss (Ling and Ton are separated, Ito and Mariane become more lost and desperate), Power never forgets the rich quality of her world, its variety and essential vitality. Here is Ito contemplating tuna fish:

Consider O-toro again and realize that the O is honorific, used for holy men and emperors, used here to signify the high level of excellence in the shimmering chunks, the velvety fat that washes across the mouth.

In the U.S., the same tuna, the bluefin, is caught for cat food. Fishermen off the coast of Maine are surprised to find that their poles have bent and almost snapped and they wrench in, with all their strength, a silver, elephant-sized fish up on the wet and dazzling boat floor, a cool, serene monster, with arching fins and tiny teeth like a cat's ridged in its fawning mouth. Its eyes are round hunks of steel and carbon, layers of translucency between the metals, some ancient glimmer of subterranean instinct, a fleeting awareness of the moment.

Nor does Power forget the richness in sorrow itself. What makes Ito's wild trajectory finally moving is his deepening ability to feel all his sorrow, and with it all his broken, miraculous life. Mariane, encumbered by alcoholism and a crippling past, does not fare as well -- but still, her life affords the reader a kind of indirectly felt wonder, simply because she exists in the same brutish and beautiful world where silver elephant-size fish are both "honorific excellence" and cat food.

The book isn't flawless. Some of the characters, particularly Mariane's estranged husband (and sometimes Mariane herself) are borderline clichis, and the ending is shapeless, giving the impression of mere unraveling. There are hackneyed descriptions of post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism, and Power's language sometimes becomes breathlessly sloppy; on one occasion she uses the trite expression "on some level" three times in the space of one-half page.

But the novel's strength far outweighs its weaknesses. That strength is primarily in its sensate intelligence, its intuitive understanding of the irrational, the subtle moment-to-moment shifts of experience that give each life depth. Early in the novel, when Ito is behind the sushi bar, a foolish businessman plies him with small talk about Japan, to which Ito responds perfunctorily. Later both men briefly think about the interaction, each wondering about the other before returning to the demands of his own life. The narrator comments, half in the businessman's point of view:

Getting deep into the core of Ito would be unpleasant ... It would be like going into the back of a four-star restaurant after a sumptuous feast to see the real workings behind the magic, and have them slice open a live chicken in front of you, just as the door swings open, a squawking chicken, and placing its hot little liver in your clean, pink hands.

Nani Power allows that the raw core of Ito, of anyone, might be unpleasant to behold. However, she also understands that in the eye of an artist, real beauty is in that same core, behind the swinging door of the hot, busy "kitchen." And, as an artist, that is where her best instincts take her.

By Mary Gaitskill

Mary Gaitskill is a novelist and short story writer. Her most recent collection is "Because They Wanted To."

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