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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 24, 2005

'Thieves' portrays darker Hawai'i

By Christine Thomas
Special to The Advertiser


In Hawai'i, the name Hemmings conjures the image of a legendary big-wave rider and often controversial Republican state Sen. Fred Hemmings, a name with an undeniable influence on the state's history and culture. Thus expectations are present even before the first lines of Kaui Hart Hemmings' first collection of short fiction, "House of Thieves," are absorbed: Upper-class, private schools, private clubs, but absolutely local.

Fresh from completing a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, 28-year-old Hemmings reveals in her writing not only her upbringing (she is that state senator's stepdaughter) but also the workshop experience — sometimes self-conscious, others self-reflexive and always addressing a message. Though necessarily translating the nuances of Hawai'i for a Mainland audience, "House of Thieves" offers a candid insider's portrait, one not tailored to tourists and including details of the darker side of Island life: marijuana-growing, land politics, a struggling culture and loss — the latter of which unites the collection.

The opening story, "The Minor Wars," is an impressive beginning, complete with touching intimacy, sparse description and an authentic, almost palpable atmosphere. Its locale is immediately recognizable to islanders as O'ahu's premier private club, but the shadow of death that 10-year-old Scottie and her father face touches all. Her mother lies in a coma, while she and her father, who narrates, struggle to fit together: "Scottie's been pointing out my flaws, my tricks and lies. She's interviewing me. I'm the backup candidate. I'm the dad." Later, in "Ancient Weapons," Hemmings perceptively displays another father confronting his distance from his teenage daughter, noting "everything she said sounded ominous, even phrases such as, 'Do you want an apple?' She scared the hell out of him."

The raw strength of "The Minor Wars" heightens the disappointment that comes with the next five stories — though capable, they often try too hard to be clever but fall short of the arc achieved in the first story.

In the title piece, Hemmings seemingly reminisces about her teen years. Though amusing to women who remember growing up on O'ahu in the '80s, when all there was to do was listen to Oingo Boingo while wearing rolled down boxers and keep track of the cute professional surfers, in the end it is simply, as the narrator speaks of her own lines, "stylish and dramatic."

Yet even if a few stories leave the reader feeling somewhat dissatisfied, Hemmings is unfailingly and impressively spot-on with her details, lending her a near unshakable power of authenticity. She beautifully provides truly local sensory details, as when she describes "the leaves on the mock orange hedge flutter against the panes, shedding scent into the room," and keenly observes the real experience of pests among beauty: "She plucks a black ant from a petal's coil and presses it between her fingers."

Only when she awkwardly explains Hawai'i's reality by telling rather than showing does that strength falter. It happens, not surprisingly, when in one story haole is defined as "a word that literally means 'foreigner,' but inside the case of the word is the implication of whiteness, dumbness, invasion." Here and elsewhere, there is a struggle to get across the point that Hawai'i's history as a once-sovereign nation affects every bit of its modern reality, just as it is true that many haole feel like Emma does in the story "Final Girl," in which she needs her half-Hawaiian son as "proof" that she is "deserving of the land she lives on," no matter how long she's been in the Islands.

The collection is welcomingly redeemed when Hemmings hits her stride in the latter third. "Begin With an Outline" is a uniquely structured story that is at once spontaneous and well controlled. Moreover she accomplishes the subtle exploration of the conflict of loving where you are — either in a relationship or where you live — but also wanting more. This is particularly true for many born and raised in Hawai'i.

Despite losing their way at points, Hemmings' stories are confident, their approach and observations clever and memorable, the writing always alert to style, and incorporating no detail without a specific purpose. If art, and writing, is about trying to make something as real as what we see around us, in the end Hemmings artfully does just that.

Christine Thomas is writing a novel set in modern Hawai'i.