” … until such time as the town had its own high-school, until Kitayama had factories, an airport, the courtesy of a high-speed train. All this was coming soon, the leaders of Kitayama had promised. As soon as the likes of grandfather were gone.”
Red Fly Red Dragonfly is a poignant story of cultural and generational divide, of old Japan vis-?-vis the new. Now in the hands of the new generation, Kitayama strives to become an “international city,” while the old generation stands impervious to change.
The outcome is inevitable in today’s world. Western culture pervades; tradition becomes novelty. Red Sky Red Dragonfly is in part a commentary on this outcome.
John Galligan’s debut novel is a murder mystery that, in its delicate treatment of character nuance and small-bore attention to detail, embodies the affectedness of the literary novel.
“He had wanted to say a simple clean goodbye, but had swiped his kids skates instead, and not cleanly either. ‘I just wanted to tell him goodbye.’
‘You’ve told him goodbye enough already.’
She meant in general.”
Told from multiple points of view, the movement of the story centers on the main character, Tommy Morrison, who takes a position teaching English in small-town — off the map Kitayama — Japan. He leaves behind, among other problems, a critically damaged relationship with his wife and teenage son.
The plot begins to unfold when Tommy Morrison arrives in Kitayama and learns the previous English teacher, Mr. Stuart, disappeared that same day.
But it is the development of Galligan’s characters and the sophistication of the writing itself that drive the novel. His descriptions are starkly accurate and written in a finely tuned prose. His dry, subdued manner of dealing with pain and grief leaves us startled and gawking at the page as we ponder the severity of his characters.
“In the morning, as an exercise, she hanged herself,” begins a chapter. To read John Galligan is to engage yourself into just that kind of unimpassioned shock treatment.
Such a voice often lends itself to cynicism, yet the characters in Red Sky Red Dragonfly do not proceed with that defeated spirit of the downtrodden. Rather, they endure and they subsist. Happiness is indeed a far-off place from Kitayama.
Miwa Sato is a Kitayamian teenager torn between a perilous love secret and loyalty to her grandfather — a man that still embraces the traditional ways of old Japanese culture.
“‘Please–‘ she began, but she could find no English words to follow. Please understand, her eyes begged him. This is such a small town. Such a small, old place. We cannot change. We cannot catch up with the rest of Japan.”
Miwa is shy and unsaid. We know of her feelings only in general. Her life is an uncompromised struggle, but she endures. Miwa Sato indeed proves to be the heroine of the novel.
But having said this of Miwa, Noriko Yamaguchi is perhaps the most compelling character. She is a teacher at Prince English School in Kitayama. When Tommy Morrison finds himself as a prime suspect for the disappearance of Mr. Stuart, it is Noriko who may be his saving grace. But the question is, can Noriko save herself? Her state is grave.
“God she hated this town, Noriko thought. And it hated her. So lucky to be Brother, she thought, far off in Gifu. Lucky Mother, to be with him. Lucky Father, to be dead and done with.” Noriko’s response to pain is perhaps more graphic than Miwa’s, and her hope more bleak. She must find a way out of Kitayama. She and Miwa both.
As the story progresses, Tommy Morrison deals with local authorities’ deepening suspicion that he is somehow involved in the disappearance of Mr. Stuart.
Tommy must discover the truth about the missing English teacher, and he must then find a way to reconcile his troubled past. But, that may not be possible. Where had he gone wrong with his wife and his son? Where had he failed?
Red Sky Red Dragonfly is not a novel of happy endings, but of profound consequence.
“In life there is the bearable and the unbearable,” wrote Lorrie Moore, as if commenting directly on Galligan’s Kitayama, where perseverance is a thing of the objective in life, where happiness is an apparition, an impalpable affair. The characters in this novel breathe and the reader gasps. Red Fly Red Dragonfly establishes John Galligan as an intriguing new voice in American contemporary fiction.