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Author Jiro Adachi. (Photo/Nancy Crampton)
From The Asian Reporter, V14, #28 (July 6, 2004), page 11.
Chains of love
The Island of Bicycle Dancers
By Jiro Adachi
St. Martin’s Press, 2004
Hardcover, 233 pages, $22.95
By Mike Street
Special to the Asian Reporter
Anyone who’s been to downtown Manhattan during business hours has witnessed the madness of the bicycle messengers there, as they flit like waterbugs between cars and through snarled intersections at breakneck speeds. Even though they are as vital to New York City commerce as overnight delivery is to the rest of the country, these reckless couriers seem to exist in a world by themselves, obeying their own laws of traffic and fashion, defying death on a daily basis. In his first novel, The Island of Bicycle Dancers, author Jiro Adachi has captured the sizzling, clacking rhythms of the world of bicycle messengers and their impact on a young Asian woman new to America.
Twenty-year-old Yurika Song, half Japanese and half Korean, always felt out of place in Japan because of her mixed ethnicity. When her parents agree to send her to stay with her aunt and uncle in New York City, Yurika hopes that she might finally feel at home in the multicultural metropolis. The reason for the visit is supposedly for Yurika to improve her English, but she knows that her parents have become weary of her rebellious ways and imagine that the trip will help her find direction in her life.
Yurika works at Lucky Market, a small East Village grocery store owned by her uncle, in order to earn money and practice English. Early on, she becomes fascinated with the bicycle messengers who are frequent customers, captured by their rough, rebellious lifestyles and flashy outfits. She befriends a messenger named Whitey and falls in love with another, more dangerous, rider named Bone, and is soon caught in an awkward love triangle between the two of them. Whitey teaches her all about bicycles and their repair, while Bone teaches her the mysteries of carnal knowledge, and Yurika displays a natural aptitude for both areas of endeavor. Bicycles, their parts and repair, become both important plot points and metaphors, and the smell of bicycle grease seems almost to rise from the pages of the book.
When she is not working or spending time with the messengers, Yurika finds her relatives’ home life even more dysfunctional than her own — her uncle Sang Jen takes every chance to get away from his distrustful, vindictive wife Hyun Jeong, and Suzie, their daughter, escapes for anonymous sex in local clubs. Hyun Jeong, believing that Yurika has been foisted on her, is hostile to Yurika’s every move, especially her friendship with the bicycle messengers, and becomes a lurking evil presence in Yurika’s life. She steals from her niece and constantly derides Yurika’s every effort at self-improvement. Whitey’s apartment becomes a sanctuary from the craziness of Yurika’s relatives, even as Bone’s bed offers a different kind of escape.
Yurika also becomes fast friends with Suzie, who teaches Yurika everything from the latest slang to the nuances of American culture. Suzie becomes both her confidante about romance and an ally against the cruel Hyun Jeong, while Yurika gives Suzie the courage to pursue her dream of becoming an English instructor. As the malevolent Hyun Jeong becomes more abusive and meddlesome, Yurika is also caught in a growing rivalry between Whitey and Bone. Her emotional development is mirrored by her increasing facility with English, and soon all the disparate elements of her life collide violently, and she is forced to decide what direction her future must take.
Adachi proves himself an accomplished storyteller as he intertwines these plot elements with multilingual characters and vivid city scenes; his eye for New York City detail is matched only by his ear for the many different dialects spoken there. In particular, Yurika’s struggles to learn English are hilariously well rendered, and familiar to anyone who has wrestled with the same language difficulties. Yurika emerges as a fully imagined character coming of age in a strange country, caught between family expectations and the tempting draw of a fresh, nontraditional life in America.
The book itself also occupies a middle ground between young adult and adult fiction, much as Yurika straddles these two worlds; although the protagonist is not yet of legal drinking age, her adventures and the language Adachi uses to describe them are definitely the stuff of grown-up fiction. The tension among all these elements — youth and adult, American and foreign cultures, rebellion and conformity — is part of what holds Bicycle Dancers together and drives it forward. And like a racer swiftly switching gears to gain speed, Adachi smoothly ratchets up this tension until the dramatic climax emerges as a perfect union of surprise and anticipation.
The Island of Bicycle Dancers has much in it to recommend to readers young and old, from those obsessed with bicycles or New York City to readers who have suffered through the same linguistic and personal problems that Yuriko has. Adachi has taken two elements of New York City that are so ubiquitous as to be invisible — bicycle messengers and Korean grocery stores — and created a unique story that will forever change the way readers see them. His voice is surprisingly sure, especially for a first-time writer, and we can expect more good things from this adept, cross-cultural author.