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Reviewed by:
  • When the Shark Bites
  • Susan Y Najita
When the Shark Bites, by Rodney Morales. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2002. ISBN 0-8248-2565-9, viii + 360 pages. US$17.00.

The publication of Rodney Morales's novel When the Shark Bites extends his already significant contributions to the literature of Hawai'i and the Pacific, his short story collection Speed of Darkness (1988 ) and his edited [End Page 438] volume Ho'i Ho'i Hou: A Tribute to George Helm and Kimo Mitchell (1984 ). In Ho'i Ho'i Hou, Morales and his contributors memorialized the struggle of the Protect Kaho'olawe 'Ohana ( PKO) and its charismatic leader, George Helm, and attempted to piece together the details of Helm's last days before his and Kimo Mitchell's mysterious disappearance. Morales's collection Speed includes his short story "Daybreak over Haleakala/Heartbreak Memories," which is in many ways a memorial to poet and activist Wayne Westlake after histragic death in a car accident on Maui. Morales's first novel, When the Shark Bites, is an extension of this earlier work in both its fictionalization of the events following Helm's disappearance and in Morales's deft interweaving of history, colonial resistance movements, popular culture, and native Hawaiian tradition. Told through the oral recountings of various characters, including the four members of the Rivera family—parents Kanani and Henry, and sons Mākena and 'Analu—Morales's novel asks readers to consider the fluid and complex nature of history as told by the Riveras to the historian Alika. Their tellings indicate varying degrees of proximity, which produce a kind of deferred and shifting historical "reality." Kanani's and Henry's stories include Alika's more "public" tape-recorded testimonies as well as dialogue and recollection "off the record," after the tape recorder has been turned off.

And yet the entire story of Helm's disappearance and its larger political implications, while unfolding in dramatic fashion, are not completely revealed to us. Rather, what is revealed more fully is a perspective on understanding the resistance and struggle of everyday people in Hawai'i. The connections between the US military, foreign and multinational investment, elite corruption, and the syndicate are revealed by implication and through Mākena's changing relationship with the mysterious lifeguard and surfer, Manny. Like Morales's adolescent characters in Speed, Mākena comes to a deeper understanding of what drives politics and the economy in the islands and what resistance to these forces entails. His initial fascination and fear of the tattooed Manny turns upon the meaning behind the novel's title, the ballad "Mack the Knife," popularized by singers such as Bobby Darin and Frank Sinatra, and initially made famous in Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera, which details the life of the criminal Mackie or MacHeath. As a ballad about a gangster, "Mack the Knife" articulates one of the many ways in which the shark signifies in Morales's text: as predatory "land sharks" or land speculators, the US military "grunts" who rape a local woman and attempt to kill Manny, and gangsters and syndicate lords who pull the strings of state policymakers. Mākena's initial perception of Manny as a "shark man" shifts steadily throughout the story as Manny reveals his own involvement in investigating the syndicate's actions. Here, the novel's evocation of the ballad and hard-boiled detective aesthetic fits perfectly with Morales's critique.

There is much to admire about Morales's first novel. The voices of [End Page 439] Kanani, Henry, and their children are beautifully and sensitively rendered. Passages that stay with this reader include the young 'Analu's story of Grampa Wong and the lovebird, Mākena's account of the surf party in "The Runner-up," and the small-time criminal Sparkey Lopez's harrowing account of his betrayal by the gangster Harley Evans. Lopez's voice in "The Ultimate Salesman" recounts how his own high-school antics—his dumping fundraiser sweetbread and paper flowers at Bellows Beach—return in his adulthood in ironic ways, with his having to dispose of a dead body for Harley Evans. Like Mackie who dumps...


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pp. 438-440
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