Talking Story

book review

Mark Panek’s Big Happiness tells the true story of Hawaiian sumo wrestler Percy Kipapa and his tragic murder on May 16, 2005. On the surface, the investigative journalism narrative reads as a mystery, a meditation on what it means to be a modern Hawaiian, and a commentary on the ice epidemic and the tangled Yakuza-Hawaii webs of commerce, money, and prestige. It’s compelling and raw. Knowing one of the key participants personally, I found it both hard to read and tough to put down.

You see, it’s also the story of one of my childhood calabash cousins, Tyler Hopkins.

After I left Hawaii for the mainland, Tyler went to Japan and became best friends with Percy. According to the Mark Panek, who knew the adult Tyler in ways I didn’t, Tyler’s life paralleled Percy’s in every significant way. Big Happiness details how they rose to become professional Hawaiian sumo wrestlers in Japan and what happened after they retired and returned to Hawaii.

I remember when Tyler was first going to Japan. He told me about it at my wedding reception at Mid-Pac Country Club thirty-one years ago, the last time I saw him in person. He was happy, and the extended ‘ohana was excited. Sumo was something my big-hearted and athletic cousin was sure to succeed at. His future was assured. Good for him!

Tyler’s sumo name was Sunahama. Living far from Japan and Hawaii before the age of internet video, it was hard for me to follow his career. Over the years, whenever I met up with my calabash Hawaiian ‘ohana, I asked aunties, uncles, and cousins for updates. Each time I was told he was doing well—first climbing the sumo ranks and then retired and working in Hawaii. Tyler was always on the verge of doing something—tourism with Japanese groups, teaching Japanese, finding his groove as a school counselor, or starting a new business venture.

Fantastic! Omedeto!

In Big Happiness, Mark Panek paints a different picture.

I knew to be a foreign sumo wrestler in Japan would be rough. I knew the pressures local kids face to “make good.” I knew how the ideals of sacrifice of self for a greater good—however that’s defined—were ingrained in Tyler. Suck it up was something our uncles told us all the time, and it applied to everything from wiping out on a wave and spitting sand to breaking a bone playing baseball to studying hard in school when playing seemed more fun to never, ever failing to be loyal to ‘ohana no matter what the personal cost.

I even suspected how the Yakuza would be involved.

But what I didn’t understand was ice. Or how much that changed Hawaii in the years after I left. I also didn’t think too deeply about how few opportunities Tyler would have had once he returned to Hawaii. Unlike Japan, there aren’t cushy jobs in corporate America waiting for retired sumo wrestlers.

I’m old enough to know that there really wasn’t anything I could’ve done to help Tyler. But my heart hurts when I remember the kid I had to swim out and rescue when his raft went out too far at Waimanalo Beach or the time we made homemade pizza and Tyler complained I added too much cheese. “No such thing,” I said. “Yeah,” he said, rubbing his opu and the scar he got when he fell through a glass shower door and almost died, “there is.”

But mostly, I can see all too clearly a moment Mark Panek describes during the trial where Tyler almost snaps. I thank God that Mark intervened.

Big Happiness by Mark Panek is available as a paperback and eBook from Amazon. For anyone wanting an insider’s view of sumo wrestling or the life of local boys in Hawaii, this book is a must read. Compelling, real, and full of heart and tragedy, it’s a story of sacrifice, privileges of race and class, and the devastating effects of ice and all the vested interests in keeping the status quo.

This book opens with a recurring fantasy of mine. A matronly woman comes to the door wanting to cook and clean for the family. All she wants in return is a place to stay and a little petty cash. Not only is she willing and able, she’s fantastic at all things domestic, her attention to detail exquisite, her emotional radar attuned to the slightest nuance of every member of the family.

The biggest drawback? She’s a murder, of course. But that was 42 years ago. Have you tasted her apple pie? Seriously, the whole murder thing seems so passé in comparison.

Meet Eleanor Ethel Rose, a complex women of simple tastes and pleasures and epic doses of motherly love. In Christopher Loke’s debut novel, The Housekeeper’s Son, we meet Eleanor and slowly strip away the layers of her story, much like peeling an apple and removing the flesh to make a pie. Eventually you’re left with the once hidden core of motives and facts lying naked on the cutting board, revealing ideas and planting seeds that challenge the reader’s understanding of what it means to be a good mother—and son. There’s no O. Henryish gimmick in the twist; the whole apple is there from the beginning. The reveal is a matter of what’s not said as much as what is—but to tell more would only spoil it. If you like mysteries and thrillers, you’re sure to find it entertaining.

Set in rural Utah, The Housekeeper’s Son, touches on but doesn’t fully explore some of the hot button issues in modern LDS culture/Mormonism today: homosexuality, child abuse, incest, neglect, depression, and, of course, murder. It’s an adult book with adult themes handled in oblique, non-graphic ways. While I enjoyed it thoroughly, I want to stress that it’s not for middle grade readers of One Boy, No Water or The Niuhi Shark Saga.

After reading The Housekeeper’s Son and then wandering through my kitchen filled with dusty light fixtures and uninspired ingredients, I still think I’d hire Eleanor Ethel Rose. After all, as the saying goes: if good friends bail you out of jail, but great friends help bury the body, then Eleanor’s in a class of her own.

The Housekeeper’s Son, written by Christopher Loke and published by Jolly Fish Press is available in hardback and eBook from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other purveyors of fine literature.

Chris’s blog can be found at: A Writer’s Notebook, http://www.chrislokenotes.blogspot.com/

For more information about Jolly Fish Press and its titles, please visit: http://www.jollyfishpress.com/

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