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Manoa 12.1 (2000) 248-249
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The Last Paradise: A Novel
The Last Paradise: A Novel by James D. Houston. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. 364 pages, cloth $22.95.
Novels that take place in Hawai'i almost invariably hinge on the sacredness of the land, the importance of family and ancestors, and the continuing vitality of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire. While James D. Houston's novel The Last Paradise is no exception, it is set apart from such books by a strong plot: a local woman recovers her family--past and present--while her haole lover discovers his dead father as a source of meaning and guidance.
We meet the main character, Travis Doyle, a claims adjuster for a small insurance firm, as he receives an assignment to Hawai'i's Big Island to check fire damage on a site where Energy Source, a Western Sun subsidiary company, has been preparing to drill for steam.
Once on the Big Island, Travis resumes his acquaintance with Evangeline/ Angel, a woman he first encountered sixteen years earlier. The renewal of this romantic relationship becomes entangled with Travis's investigation of the insurance claim and with the cross-cultural values of the islands.
The author makes clear how socially and culturally offensive the big corporation's planned geothermal drilling is, and the project soon causes a rift between the two lovers. Although Angel is only one-quarter Hawaiian, she is a native of the islands and has set herself against the interlopers, of whom Travis might be one. Houston is resourceful in weaving in and out of their dispute and what they discover is their genuine love for each other. The lovers are not unusual--we don't remember them afterwards--but they do make a claim on our sympathy.
Along the way, Travis meets some irritating characters, chief of whom is Ian Prince, whose father was one of the powers behind the growth of Western Sun. The tale of Ian Prince is perhaps the weakest aspect of the book. Near the end of the novel, Prince is found dead, pinned in a crevice close to an oncoming river of [End Page 248] brilliant, flowing lava that never reaches him. The volcanic blaze is excellently described by Houston:
The heat is dry and seems to rise in undulating waves, to blur the horizon and the distant plume. Soon orange windows are everywhere around him, and respect is too mild a word for what he feels....The spectacle surrounds you and you want to give it a name, whatever comes rising from the treeless plain, and you see why the spirit that inhabits such a place has been called possessive and wild and demanding and seductive....The ancient and the new lie side by side, the black rock and the seething red, the life of the surface and the life of the underworld.
Houston has written in lucid, energetic prose a book that brings together the best possibilities of human flow and connection as they challenge the rocks gathered to block them.
Gene Frumkin has published fourteen books of poetry, most recently Falling into Meditation. He has also coedited several literary magazines, including California Quarterly and Blue Mesa Review, and the anthology The Indian Rio Grande: Recent Poems from Three Cultures.