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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 25, 2002

Book offers look into Hawai'i's not-so-distant past

By Wanda Adams
Advertiser Book Editor

"HALFWAY TO ASIA, A Hawaii-Pacific Novel" by John Griffin. Xlibris, $28.79 hardback, $18.69 paper, $8 e-book, (Available via www.Xlibris.com/halfwaytoasia.thml or bookshop Web sites Amazon.com, Borders.com, BarnesNoble.com).

John Griffin, former Advertiser editorial-page editor and a longtime correspondent, editor and columnist in the Asia-Pacific region, has written a novel that recalls a period in Hawai'i's history not all that far removed from the present, but one that feels as far away as missionary times.

It was a period when people really believed in a communist threat to our way of life; when labor unions, established but not yet entrenched, were painted with a red-tinged brush by the Islands' Big Five-dominated political structure; when many here would do anything to achieve statehood, or sweep anything under the carpet if it stood in the way of that goal. It was also a time when an ambitious young Mainland haole who played his cards right (at the Pacific Club, preferably) could easily find his way into a cushy job, a house in Manoa and the heart of an Island woman.

If some of the fictional action in the book seems unlikely — for example, arranging for a citizen to lie to the press while the journalists involved tacitly agree to pretend that they can't see the strings holding up the marionette — it's because we have forgotten the realities of the post-World War II political scene here, which included machinations that make the incidents in this book look tame.

Griffin is at his best when he's with the boys in the back rooms who ran Hawai'i in those days, smoking, drinking and plotting.

You get a sense of what a small, small town Honolulu was, and how few the players were that could make things happen. You see how quickly corruption set in within the well-intentioned union ranks and even among the fresh-faced nisei-generation vets who swept into office on a wave of naive optimism and political-rally rhetoric.

But Griffin has as his central character a guy it's tough to like or understand.

Tony O'Donovan is a journalist who doesn't pay much attention when the little warning bells go off in his head, a guy who marries while still fancying he is in love with another woman, who has a child with a third woman and then lies about it even as his wife confesses her own frailties.

Of course, infidelity and poor ethics alone aren't enough to put a reader off, but Tony is such an unrealized human being that 40 pages from the end of the book, when he tells his wife, "I'm just trying to figure out who I am," I'm wishing she'd say, "Oh, just pick somebody, already."

Is he a journalist or an academic? Does he love his wife or the woman in the Philippines? Is he staying in Hawai'i or will he finally go to Asia and stay there? It's not just Hawai'i that's "halfway" to somewhere, it's this character, too.

Tony aside, this book will amuse those who recall Hawai'i's postwar spectator-sport politics and reveal to the younger generation the roots of their cynicism.