A Novelby Mark Haskell Smith
“At once sexy and repulsive, the novel manages to plant sharp moral and cultural barbs in its gorge-feast of a plot.” —Publishers Weekly
From a leading screenwriter and the author of Moist, a comic mystery set in Hawaii in the tradition of Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard.
How to Host a Delicious Luau
• Wear your best aloha shirt.
• Build an imu (underground oven).
• If you don’t have a pu’a kalua, substitue two haoles (guys from the mainland).
• Don’t forget the poi.
Welcome to sunny Hawaii, where the palm trees sway, the tropical breezes blow, and a gangland-style turf war is erupting. Joseph is one of the best chefs in Honolulu, but these daysthe opakapaka and ono aren’t the only things heating up. When a TV producer flies to the islands to film a pilot, a fight-to-the-finish breaks out over who will cater the shoot. Will it be Joseph and his hotheaded Samoan uncle, who have held a monopoly on the catering business for years? Or Big Jack Lacey, a trash-talking, lap dance-addicted stroke survivor from Las Vegas and his milquetoast son, a young man who wants to be a missionary but doesn’t know the position. As far as Joseph’s family is concerned, this is an invasion on par with Captain Cook, only this time the mainlanders have to be stopped before paradise is lost.
With the Teamsters unwilling to take sides and the Sin City boys enlisting the services of an ecstasy-popping ex-Marine hitman, hope comes in the form of Francis, a gay TV-movie producer on a drug-crazed bender after a bad breakup.
With the lines drawn and both sides preparing for battle, Joseph enlists the help of his bodybuilder cousin, Wilson, and Lono, a sweet-natured pimp. Ultimately their survival depends on the one thing Joseph’s good at: cooking. That’s when things go horribly wrong—or, depending on how you look at it, just right.
Fast-paced and ribald, this uproarious and delectably dark comic thriller is a side of paradise that definitely hasn’t been endorsed by the tourist bureau.
“[Mark Haskell Smith’s] characters include a not-so-usual suspect lineup of hustlers, sex addicts, supermodels, failed rock stars, wine-buff cops, psychos and flakes. Haskell Smith writes well, especially about sex and food, and the multilayered plots move so fast they feel fresh. Think Elmore Leonard meets Mario Batali.” —Richard Rayner, Los Angeles Times
“Delicious is engrossing from page one. This is a deft and wild comic novel drawn from utterly fresh material. I look forward to anything Mark Haskell Smith writes.” —Jim Harrison, author of True North
“Rated NC-17 for intermittent comic violence, good-natured swearing, cannibalism, humorous amorality, and some truly perverse sex.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Hits exactly the right spot. . . . Haskell Smith smartly keeps the action lively by cutting back and forth between viewpoints while tossing off hilarious one-liners and situations that would be over-the-top if they weren’t so hilarious. But what really makes this novel work is its deft touch with serious themes of displacement and relationship changes. Delicious is not for those with weak stomachs, prudish minds or delicate ears, but that leaves the rest of us to savor the novel’s many twisted charms.” —Sarah Weinman, Baltimore Sun
“Smith writes like Carl Hiaasen’s oversexed cousin. . . . [He] excels at cooking up a supremely weird atmosphere and spicing it up with equally weird sex and violence.” —Joanne Wilkinson, Booklist
“At once sexy and repulsive, the novel manages to plant sharp moral and cultural barbs in its gorge-feast of a plot.” —Publishers Weekly
“Perverse black humor and sensuality, totally unexpected situations. Murder and gore abound but are presented so matter-of-factly, with such sly, lazy humor, that they are not repellent. . . . This is spare, stylish writing. Not a wasted word. . . . Believe me, Smith makes sure the reader has an immediate connection to each character. There’s no stopping after the first couple of pages. Smith wittily displays an intuitive sense of human nature; how variable, vulnerable, changeable and dangerous the mind of man (and woman) is. Some of the plot turns are simply breathtaking. But unlike other twisty thrillers, you’re never confused or exasperated. You go right along with Smith, and accept what he decides is the fate of this or that one.” —Liz Smith, New York Post
“Smith is a funny guy—see his earlier work Moist—and this ribald account of a food-catering war in Hawaii is—like wine-drizzled opakapaka and hungry sex—difficult to put down. . . . Sly and humorous.” —Honolulu Star-Bulletin
“In this darkly comic tale of contract killers, strip-club patrons, libidinous gay producers, and entrepreneurial island chefs, Smith deftly manipulates his characters toward an inevitable and gruesome conclusion.” —Tom Dolby, Out
“Sex is certainly the throbbing heart of this exuberantly perverse, engagingly comic new novel. . . . It’s all neatly twisted together, viewed with a sweetly jaundiced eye and discussed in fleet, pungent prose. . . . Smith’s characters are mostly likeable, the less estimable more so—all drawn in broad, deft strokes. . . . A sprightly light read. Grade: B+” —Cincinnati CityBeat
“Definitely the sick-bastard son of Elmore Leonard, yes, Mark Haskell Smith. . . . Highly, highly recommended.” —Tony DuShane, Cherry Bleeds
“Smith uses a light brush with which to paint a heavy picture—the rape of Hawaiian culture by the do-gooders who came over from the mainland to save them and destroyed them. Smith does a nice job of interspersing the language and the customs without confusing the reader. . . . You’ll be treated to a group of people who at times almost defy the laws of gravity or something. They are funny, weird, serious, off the wall, you name it. . . . Each [character] is a jewel.” —Manya Nogg, I Love a Mystery
“This is an absolute gem of a novel—an addictive and engaging page-turner that is both hilarious and unexpectedly touching. Mark Haskell Smith is a genius at humanizing the absurd, prettying up the grotesque and altering the reader’s expectations in all kinds of wonderful ways. Delicious is a joy to read and the most aptly named novel in recent decades.” —David Liss, author of Spectacle of Corruption and The Coffee Trader
“I haven’t laughed so hard or often at a crime novel in years. Delicious is a wonderfully perverse book and I recommend it in the highest possible terms, with this caveat: Don’t read it right before dinner.” —Scott Phillips, Author of The Ice Harvest, The Walkway, and Cottonwood
Praise for Moist:
“Mark Haskell Smith’s energetic thriller is an ode to the hard-boiled Los Angeles of Raymond Chandler or James Ellroy spun out in larger-than-life starburst colors. Like its bold palate, Moist is aggressively over-the-top, yet each bizarre turn is as stubbornly logical as it is wonderfully impossible.” —Mark Rozzo, Los Angeles Times Book Review
“I’m gonna dig an imu.”
He couldn’t think of any other way. So the night before, Joseph went out and gathered as many large rocks and hunks of lava as he thought he’d need. He’d spent the morning collecting banana stalks and chunks of koa wood from a farm near Waiahole, filling the bed of his pickup truck with as much of the stuff as he could, all the while telling the farmer that, yes, he was making kalua pig but, no, he wasn’t having a luau. It wasn’t a party for family and friends. It was a business thing.
He drove the long way around, past Kahuku and Waialee, past Sunset Beach, and the Banzai Pipeline with its horde of roughly glamorous surfers, their bodies bronzed and articulated like Roman statues, their long hair curling from hours of salt and sun, attended by young girls with tight bodies in tighter bikinis.
Joseph had often wondered what it was like to ride the big waves on the North Shore. To feel the ocean swell and build underneath you until it rose up, three stories high, rumbling and pushing with a primeval force, beginning to reach out over you, cutting off the sun and sky, wrapping around you in a seething roil of heavy foam. Joseph had seen it, all that pressure building inside a tunnel of water until it suddenly collapsed, like a building falling down, the air pressure exploding like a cannon, shooting a surfer out of the tube in a blast of salt spray at fifty miles an hour. He had heard it was an unbelievable rush. Better than sex, better than any drug. But he couldn’t do it. Leave it to the crazies from Brazil or the rad Cali dudes to risk getting shredded on the coral just beneath the waves.
Joseph didn’t like to go out into the water. He didn’t surf in it. He didn’t swim in it. He didn’t even like to ride in a boat. Whenever he was in the water the hair on the back of his neck would stand up. The fear of joining the food chain. A distinctly sharky vibe.
He liked the beach. Liked to kick back, drink a beer, watch the girls, feel his skin go from brown to really brown. As long as he didn’t have to enter the water, the beach was fine.
Joseph stopped for gas and an energy bar in Haleiwa before turning inland, driving past the sagging homes and rotting little farmhouses that dotted a desolate countryside filled with scrub grass and clumps of wild sugarcane.
Most of the land was owned by Dole or some other agribiz that zealously guarded its pineapple fields, putting up gates and patrolling the rutted roads in pickup trucks. But that didn’t bother Joseph. He knew where to go.
He turned off the pavement and onto a dirt road, the red soil rising up in a cloud behind his truck like a brush fire. He jounced down the road for a few miles, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and then stopped, the truck disappearing for a moment in a thick swirling cloud of dirt.
Joseph let the dust settle and then backed the pickup down a deeply rutted and pockmarked trail through a dense thicket of sugarcane near an abandoned sugar mill. He drove slowly, careful not to bottom out the springs on his truck, the rocks and firewood clunking and lurching in the back.
The main house and crushing mills stood faded and falling apart, ruins from another time, left over from the days of C & H, Claus Sprekels, and the sugar boom, when hundreds of Japanese and Filipinos, wearing heavy clothes to keep from getting lacerated, had hacked down cane in the fields to sweeten cakes, cookies, and coffee on the mainland. It had been a big business on the island until the company found a cheaper place to grow and harvest sugar. Now it was a wasteland, the sharp canes growing wild, like a forest of green razors, waving in the breeze.
Joseph rolled his window up; he didn’t want to get cut.
He reached the edge of the thicket, a small clearing by a decaying outbuilding, and pulled to a stop. He climbed out and looked around. He could turn his head in any direction, and all he could see was tall green sugarcane bobbing in the breeze.
It was hot, so Joseph took off his T-shirt, revealing a lean body with taut muscles and light brown skin. He looked Hawaiian but, like most people on the island, his lineage was a mixed bag. His father was half Samoan, half Hawaiian, his mother a slender blend of Thai and Danish. He looked like everyone else in Honolulu, brown skin, Asiatic eyes, and dark hair, but with a kind of beautiful mash of a face, his Thai and Northern European DNA fighting it out on a handsome Hawaiian canvas.
He had a Samoan last name, Tanumafili, but he was never mistaken for a Samoan. When asked what race he was, he always referred to himself as chop suey: a crazy mix of leftovers jumbled up and thrown together. Chop suey. Fill that in on the census form.
Joseph dropped the gate on the truck and began chucking hunks of wood into a pile. Bright red dust, looking like something from Mars, rose up in little blooms with each thud and thunk as he emptied the truck bed.
He fished a bag of newspaper and some small sticks out of the cab of the truck—stopping to take a long drink of cold water from the battered Igloo cooler in the front seat—dragged the bag over to a clear spot, squatted, and began to form the material into something combustible.
Sweat, dripping from his forehead, put out the first match. The second one reached the crumpled newspaper without incident. Joseph watched as the paper caught fire, sending tentative licks of flame up into the twigs. He picked up a couple of large hunks of koa and, using an ax, split them and threw them on the fire.
Now came the hard part.
Using a stick he marked out a large rectangle on the ground, about six feet by four, bigger than your average imu. Joseph spit into his palms, plucked a shovel out of the truck, and drove it into the ground along the line he’d made. The blade bit into the soil with a crunch, and he heaved the loose red dirt, pocked with dark pebbles of volcanic rock, off to the side.
As he dug, Joseph thought about what his uncle had told him. They were being invaded. They had to do whatever they could to protect themselves, their island, and their way of life. It reminded him of all the old stories, the folktales of brave warriors, island kings, and angry volcano gods. But Joseph didn’t need the old stories, the tribal warfare, the myth of Pele, or the arrival of Captain Cook to convince him that his uncle was right. He had seen the consequences of invasion with his own eyes. Rich Caucasians from the mainland were buying up property on the cheap, displacing local families, and then turning around and selling to even richer Japanese. Companies were building factories, employing hundreds of locals, and then shifting the business farther west to Asia, where cheap labor flourished, leaving the islanders unemployed, living with debts they could never repay.
Life was hard enough. The cost of living in Honolulu was far higher than what the average person could afford, and most of Joseph’s friends had to work two, sometimes three jobs just to make ends meet. Those without steady employment often found themselves fishing for dinner. An empty net and their children went hungry, while overstuffed pink-skinned tourists ordered room service and drank mai tais on the beach.
The mainlanders, the haoles, had come and taken what they wanted. They had abused the islands and the people who call them home, perverting the spirit of aloha and turning it into a marketing catchphrase for bare-breasted hula girls and rum drinks in tiki mugs. They didn’t give a rat’s ass about the local traditions, the culture, or the Hawaiian people. All they wanted was money. Profit at the expense of the natives.
Joseph had seen it happen before, but it was always to someone else. Now it was happening to him and his family, his ohana. So he was digging an imu. He couldn’t think of any other way.
Joseph stopped digging. He stood up in the hole, now almost four feet deep, and cocked his ear. He heard the whine of an engine reversing down the dirt road, the crunch of tires, the soft putter of exhaust. He climbed out of the hole just as the rear of a plain white van appeared in the clearing. Joseph had to shout to keep the driver from backing into the fire. The van skidded to a stop and then lurched forward in quick little hops, as if stung by a bee.
Joseph directed the van next to his truck and watched as the dust settled and his cousin Wilson climbed out of the driver’s seat. Wilson stood and stretched, blinking in the sunlight. He was a lot bigger than Joseph: strong, with a large barrel chest and huge bulging biceps ringed with tribal tattoos. Wilson’s shaved head looked like it was planted on his shoulders, his neck disappearing in a mass of thick muscles bulging out at extreme angles like flying buttresses. He wore shorts and flip-flops, revealing legs that looked like smooth tree trunks, knotted with thick blue veins.
Wilson had turned down a chance to play defensive end for the University of Washington Huskies, preferring to go right into the police academy. But police work was tedious and he never made it onto the force, dropping out of the academy and settling into a life working for his father’s company. Occasionally, Wilson would take a job as a bouncer at a local disco. He liked that job, enjoying the music, the girls, the free crank. He held the record for tourist tossing, having once flung a rowdy Japanese man over a parked car and into the middle of Kalakaua Avenue. He came back the next day and measured the distance from the disco’s door to the bloodstain still on the street. Twenty-four feet seven inches. Untouchable.
Joseph, his body slick with sweat, stepped forward and embraced his cousin.
Wilson broke from the embrace and looked at the hole. “Wow, brah. You almost done.”
“We might need some more rocks.”
Wilson checked the pile. “Looks like enough.”
“Did you bring any food? I’m starving.”
Wilson nodded. “No worries. Nana cooked us fried fish and rice.”
Joseph looked at the fire. “Let’s put the rocks in and eat.”
As the rocks began to heat and smoke in the fire, Joseph and Wilson sat in the shade of a large banyan tree, eating from Tupperware containers of fried fish and rice.
Wilson spoke with his mouth full. “How long you think this gonna take?”
Wilson didn’t like the sound of that. “All night?”
“Better to be on the safe side, don’t you think?”
Joseph snapped at his cousin. “I don’t want to be going back and starting over because we didn’t give them the extra time, man. I don’t like this as it is.”
Wilson shrugged. He generally let Joseph take the lead. Joseph was the smart one in the family, the ambitious one, the one who went to college. Unless it was one of Wilson’s areas of expertise—football, primarily—he deferred to his cousin.
“You da boss.”
Joseph stuffed a chopstick load of food in his mouth and exhaled. “Sorry. I’m just tired.”
“No worries. You da best cook in da family.”
Joseph looked over at the van parked next to his pickup at the edge of the thicket. “They in there?”
Wilson nodded. “Dey not goin’ nowhere.”
Joseph nodded thoughtfully. For some reason, he looked up at the sky. He saw blue. Nothing else, not a cloud, not a bird, just a wash of vibrant color. He didn’t know what he expected to see: God looking down on them? Not that he, or anyone in his family, was particularly religious. Occasionally his grandmother would make a kakuai, an offering to the gods. But that was usually associated with someone’s marriage or the birth of a new great-grandchild. She never made a big deal out of it, once pitching an overripe banana out the kitchen window and saying it was a kakuai because they needed rain. No one else in the family even bothered to do that. Who has time for old myths and stories when you’ve got to go to work? But Joseph couldn’t be persuaded to disregard the local beliefs. Why should he? As far as he knew, the world was full of akuas. Maybe there really was a volcano goddess, shark god, waterfall god. We got loads of gods and goddesses around here. It was the Christian God who was always causing all the problems, with his absolute decrees of good and evil, right and wrong. The Christian God just didn’t understand that sometimes—well, circumstances arise where good and evil become relative terms. The local gods understood what Joseph and Wilson had to do. They approved. For some reason the Christian God always sided with the mainlanders: the haoles and butter-stinkers.
Wilson finished his food and let out a belch. “Da rocks look ready.”
They laid down a good four-inch layer of beach sand in the bottom of the hole. This helped insulate the ground and kept the heat from dispersing too quickly. Joseph chopped the banana stalks in half, soaked them briefly in water from a well near the abandoned outbuilding, and put a layer over the sand while Wilson pushed the white-hot rocks out of the fire toward the hole. Together they shoved them onto the banana stalks, steam bursting from the stalks the moment the hot rocks hit them, and then tossed another layer of wet banana stalks on top of them.
Now came the meat.
Joseph followed Wilson over to the van. Wilson opened the doors to reveal two large, naked, and very dead Caucasian men slumped in the back. There were nasty-looking wounds on their chests, the skin blackened and burned around the puckering bullet holes.
Joseph recoiled. “Fuck.”
“Dey not dat big. C’mon.”
“Do they have to be naked?”
Joseph considered that. There was no difference. Nothing was going to make this any easier.
“You get the feet.”
They carried the first body, a thin, reedy guy with a bushy mustache and sandy hair, cut in a kind of seventies style with the hair coming halfway over his ears. Joseph thought the guy might’ve believed he looked like a bad-ass Texas Ranger type, but he really looked more like a car salesman. They lowered his body onto the hot rocks, and the skin instantly began to spit and sizzle. Joseph and Wilson both covered their noses.
Without a word, they went back and got the second body. This guy was big, almost as big as Wilson. Wilson let out a grunt as they hoisted him.
“Dis cat used steroids.”
“Why do you say that?”
“White guys don’ get dis big.”
Like his partner, the big guy had a bushy mustache. Wilson didn’t know what to make of that. Maybe they were in a cult.
Joseph and Wilson struggled with the second guy, eventually laying him next to the hole and rolling him in. A burst of steam rose out of the pit as soon as the body hit the hot rocks.
They quickly got to work finishing the imu, throwing wet banana stalks on top of the bodies and then rolling more white-hot rocks on top of that. These rocks they would keep replacing with other rocks from the fire, rotating them to keep the imu as hot as they could for the next ten or twelve hours.
Joseph walked to the shade of the banyan and collapsed in a heap. He was soaked through with sweat, red dirt sticking to his hair, his face, his arms and legs, his chest, and his back. His sweat had turned the dirt to mud; the sun was starting to bake it into clay. From a distance he looked like one of the mud men of New Guinea: a ferocious clay-coated island warrior. A mud-caked cannibal.
Wilson walked to his van and pulled a couple of cold beers from a cooler in the front seat. He carried them back and handed one to Joseph without a word. Joseph gratefully took the beer, cracked it open, and felt the cold bitter taste wash the dust out of his throat.
The two cousins sat together in the shade, drinking their beer, watching the smoke rise up from the imu and drift in the wind.
Joseph had been dreaming. He’d dreamed he was on a raft at sea. In every direction there was no sign of land, no sign of another boat, nothing. Just big, blank vastness. It was a moonless night, or at least in the dream he didn’t see anything as comforting and normal as the moon. The sky was clear and starless. The ocean rocked with malevolent swells, the dark waves churning with jellyfish, pololia, the water almost solid, like black glass, with sharp jagged edges.
The raft wasn’t a Robinson Crusoe job—it wasn’t bamboo lashed together with vines—it was one of those yellow rubber inflatable things that fishing boats and pleasure yachts keep for emergencies. Joseph bobbed up and down in the waves, unable to move, trapped in the marshmallowy rubber like a man drowning in a condom, a grubby prophylactic spinning and swirling as it’s flushed down the toilet.
Joseph woke up and blinked. The sky was warming, the morning sun somewhere off to the east, just cresting over the sea. Birds flitted from branch to branch in the banyan tree above him. Joseph didn’t need a shrink to analyze his dream. He knew what it meant. Something bad was hiding under the black waves, something that was sucking him down, keeping him stuck in place. It was obviously an anxiety dream. But the jellyfish: What did that mean?
He cranked his head to one side and saw Wilson snoring on a blanket.
Joseph jumped up and moved quickly to the fire. It had been Wilson’s turn to watch the imu, so Joseph was relieved to find it still hot, the rocks still cooking. Joseph took a stick and bent over the pit. He poked at some of the meat, watching as it fell away from the bone, white, steamy, and tender. Just the way a kalua pig is supposed to look. Alarmingly, his stomach let out a ferocious growl. Somehow, in the night, the horrible stench of burning hair and roasting flesh had turned into—well, it smelled like bacon.
Joseph shuddered and walked back over to his sleeping cousin. “Wake up.”
Wilson rolled, rubbed his eyes, and groaned. “What’s it?”
Wilson sat up. “You check?”
Joseph nodded. “Yeah.”
“How dey taste, brah?”
“Stop fucking around.”
Joseph turned, walked back to the van, and began pulling out long kitchen tongs and large metal pans. Wilson joined him.
“I need coffee. I no can fo’ wake up.”
Joseph didn’t respond; he just kept pulling out stuff, organizing the work that had to be done.
“I don’t have any coffee.”
“Let’s go into town, get somethin’ fo’ breakfast.”
“It’s too dangerous.”
“Get somethin’ to take out, den. Dere’s gotta be someplace fo’ grind near da freeway. I’ll stay an’ make work.”
Joseph thought about it. He realized Wilson was right. They’d probably be here another four or five hours; they’d need some food.
“Right on. Get me two—no, three—breakfast san’wiches an’ two extra-large coffees wit’ milk an’ sugar. I need lotsa sugar.”
Joseph brushed himself off and started to get into his truck.
“An’ some fries. Fo’ later.”
“Make sure they’re all the way done.”
Wilson saluted as his cousin drove off, jouncing down the red dirt road.
Joseph headed back toward the sugarcane fields with several bags of takeout riding on the seat next to him. Even at this early hour he’d had to wait in a line of cars in the drive-thru as commuters grabbed their steaming sacks of the fried egg, pork sausage, mayonnaise, and molten-cheese sandwiches before taking the Kamehameha Highway to the H2, racing into Honolulu like it was the Indy 500.
A couple of papayas, picked up at a roadside stand, tumbled around on the floor. Joseph rolled his window down, letting the cool morning breeze blow in and carry the stench of congealing grease out the window, across the ocean, and back to the mainland where it came from. He looked at the bags on the passenger seat. The paper was growing incrementally darker, wicking the grease from the bottom to the top of the bag. It reminded him of his youth.
He’d spent his childhood eating grease. Raised on the “plate lunch,” a deep-fried chunk of protein, a scoop of macaroni salad, and two scoops of rice, Joseph had gone through his adolescence and early adulthood constantly overweight. He hadn’t been big enough or strong enough to use his weight as a defensive lineman like his cousin, so he spent much of his time sitting under a tree reading books, eating potato chips, and listening to Hawaiian pop singers like Israel Kamakawiwo’ole.
In retrospect he realized it hadn’t been so bad. Sure, he felt left out and lonely, but then he was the only person he knew who’d read Proust’s body of work in one summer-long marathon. He didn’t go to the prom or to the school football games; instead he would go to the library and, if he found an author he liked, he’d work his way through their collected works. Steinbeck, Poe, Dostoyevsky, Arthur Conan Doyle, Victor Hugo, Mark Twain: He devoured them.
When he discovered pulp fiction, it got worse. The Hardy Boys led to Mickey Spillane, to Raymond Chandler, to Ross MacDonald, and on and on. He’d read a book a day, sometimes forgetting to sleep. Paperbacks rose like stalagmites next to his bed, reaching toward the ceiling, collapsing into heaps, collecting like snowdrifts in the corners of his room.
This sedentary lifestyle came crashing to a halt one day. Sitting in his underwear on an examining table at the ripe age of seventeen, weighing in at a robust 275 pounds, a well-worn library copy of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in hand, Joseph heard the doctor tell him about the “Hawaiian diet.” It was based on one simple fact. The Polynesian body had developed for centuries subsisting on a diet of roasted fish, greens, fruits, and taro root. The introduction of oils, and in particular the hypersaturated fats used in fast foods, had caused a weight explosion among islanders because their bodies couldn’t process the stuff. They just didn’t have the chemistry.
So Joseph began his freshman year at the University of Hawaii the same way he ended his senior year of high school: sitting by himself, reading a book, oblivious to the ebb and flow of pheromones and hormones, the pitch of tight biceps, or the pull of a heaving bikini top. Only now he was intensely interested in food. He began reading cookbooks, searching for new ways to cook things. And his diet changed drastically. Instead of a bag of potato chips or a cheeseburger, he ate fresh papaya and pineapple; instead of steak or meat loaf, he ate fresh fish. Sometimes he’d go for days only eating raw foods: sashimi and melons. Other days he might roast fresh seafood on the beach, just like his ancestors.
It didn’t take long for his body to adjust. The weight dropped off him, like peeling out of an oversized suit, and he soon found himself filled with a strange new energy. He began walking everywhere, walking for hours. He’d let his mind drift on these walks, daydreaming. Occasionally he’d find himself strolling on the beach with a large boner rising up inside his pants like the periscope of a submarine reaching through the murky ocean toward the bright light of day.
If his life was like a book, something he could easily relate to, then Joseph thought of his early years as one chapter, the greasy lonely chapter, and his college years as the next.
When he was younger he never paid much attention to girls and, for their part, they never paid much attention to the pudgy little nerd with his head in a book. So he had never done the things that drive most adolescent boys crazy. He’d never been to a school dance and held a girl close while a cover band blared some crappy ballad by Billy Joel and his penis throbbed like an outboard motor in his pants. He’d never felt the ache and pang of a first crush, never experienced the flush of adrenaline, the bloom of blood rushing to his face as he played Spin the Bottle around a fire pit on the beach, never knew the awkwardness and excitement of a first date.
In his sophomore year of college, all that changed. He chose to major in something called Hawaiian Oral Traditions, because he liked stories and thought someone ought to remember how to speak Hawaiian. When he wasn’t jogging on the beach or hanging around the campus learning, through trial and error, his way around the female anatomy, he was working. He got a job in a restaurant, starting out as a dishwasher and working his way up to prep cook and then line cook. Even though it wasn’t necessarily the healthy Polynesian food he himself ate, Joseph enjoyed preparing all kinds of things—even the goofy dishes that the tourists craved, like macadamia-crusted opakapaka with mango salsa or pork braised in haupia milk.
With the responsibility of employment came some financial freedom. Joseph found himself with more spending money than most college students, and he invested that money in his culinary education. He’d take women out on dates, but only to restaurants he wanted to try. He ended up becoming something of a regular at Alan Wong’s. He’d sit at the counter facing the kitchen and watch the cooks throw together a kind of inspired mélange of tropical, French, and Japanese.
It was during these dinners that he realized what he wanted to do. He wanted to be a chef.
His dates didn’t understand. Why didn’t he want to sit at a table and look into their eyes? They wanted to talk to him, to tell him what they were interested in, what things they liked to do, what they thought about others. They wanted to find things in common. They wanted to communicate.
Joseph didn’t want to talk, he wanted to cook.
He swung his truck off the main road and turned back down the rutted red trail. He drove slowly, creeping along between the sugarcane, so as not to make too big a rooster tail of dust.
As he pulled into the clearing, he looked over and saw Wilson, squatting near the smoldering imu, a human leg on the ground in front of him, picking meat off the thigh, putting it in his mouth, and chewing thoughtfully.
Joseph jumped out of the truck. “What the fuck are you doing?”
Wilson looked up, his mouth still full of freshly roasted human flesh, and held up a finger. “Wait a sec.”
Joseph stood there, feeling a bubble of stomach acid rising inside him, and watched as his cousin finished chewing and swallowed.
“Are you insane? You can’t eat people!”
“I just wanted a taste.”
Joseph turned and retched. Bitter fluid spewed out of his stomach and onto the ground. Feeling his knees go weak, he collapsed, letting the red dirt rise around him, and began to cry quietly.
Wilson looked at him. “I just tasted it, brah. Don’t freak.”
Don’t freak? That’s all he wanted to do. He’d been doing all this, digging the imu and cooking the corpses, on a kind of autopilot. He hadn’t felt anything toward the two men: not hatred, not pity, nothing. But now, seeing Wilson squatting on the ground munching on a thigh? “Don’t freak” was kind of an understatement.
He looked up.
“That’s a person’s leg. A human being. You can’t eat a human being.”
“Yeah. But, like, when am I ever gonna get a chance to try dis again? You know wot I’m sayin’? It’s not like it’s gonna be on the menu at Sam Choy’s.”
Joseph didn’t say anything.
“It’s not dat bad. A little stringy.”
“You’re an Ai-Kanaka.”
“Dat’s just a story.”
Joseph wiped tears from his eyes. “Those stories come from somewhere.”
Wilson shook his head. He looked down at the leg still steaming on the ground. Joseph thought he saw a strange look flicker on his cousin’s face. Not a look of revulsion or repulsion at what he’d done. No. It was the look of a young boy staring at the cookie jar. A look desperate for one more taste.
Joseph jumped up. “Stop. Just—fucking—stop!”
Wilson looked hurt. “I stopped, okay?”
“Move away from that leg!”
Wilson stayed put and looked up at Joseph. “I’m sorry, okay?”
Joseph got up and walked shakily back to the truck. He reached into the cab and pulled out the bag of fast food.
“All right!” Wilson leaped to his feet and stuck his face in the bag. “I was starvin’, brah!”
He pulled out a breakfast sandwich—a cold, congealed artery bomb coated with mayonnaise, decorated with two strips of fat-marbled bacon, and smushed between two English muffins—unwrapped it, and took a huge bite. He held it out for Joseph. Joseph looked at the sandwich and at his cousin, who was chomping relentlessly, little blobs of mayonnaise and grease squirting out the side of his mouth; then he looked over at the leg on the ground. Cooling now, it was beginning to attract flies. Joseph shook his head.
“You gotta eat somethin’, man. We got a lotta work ahead of us.”
Joseph sat on the bumper and watched as a fly landed on the leg and began doing its fly thing. He wanted to give up, to surrender, just lie down and sleep until someone came and arrested him. Let the authorities lock him away or, better, treat him like the old Hawaiians treated an Ai-Kanaka and pitch him off a cliff to his death. He watched as another fly landed on the leg. He heard his cousin’s lips smacking wetly as they worked over the breakfast sandwich. A bird chirped.
“It’s not dat bad.”
“What’s not that bad?”
“Wot we did.”
Joseph looked at Wilson. “It’s bad, okay? There’s nothing good about it.”
The anger in Joseph’s voice made Wilson defensive.
“Dey were gonna do it to us.”
Joseph nodded. What could he say? Yeah, they were going to do it to us. We were just defending ourselves. Protecting the islands, defending our ohana, our way of life. We aren’t murderers and cannibals, we’re just scaring the conquerors away with some Polynesian craziness. Knocking them off before they take our land and destroy our culture, just like they did to the Cherokee, Crow, Shawnee, and Navaho. Yeah. We’re innocent. We’re just keeping them from corrupting our culture.
But Joseph wondered about that. How innocent were they? How justified? Who was really responsible for corrupting the culture? Out of necessity the natives had converted their culture into a commodity and sold it so they could afford to live in their own homes. But had they sold out or become subjugated? Why were they spending all their effort and energy welcoming the conquerors, serving them pineapple and poi, offering them leis and mai tais, giving them the spirit of aloha, when what they’d really like to do is feed them to the sharks?
What was the alternative? Should they just give the island land to the haoles and let them turn it into golf courses? Speak only Hawaiian and keep to themselves? Was it better to live in squalor on a reservation than become an Ai-Kanaka? What does it mean to be Hawaiian?
Wilson was well into the second sandwich. He looked at Joseph.
“You gotta eat, brah.”
Joseph wiped some dust off his sunglasses. “I had some papaya.”
Joseph watched Wilson sitting there, devouring a sandwich as a couple of corpses steamed in the imu next to him. He hung his head in dismay. Maybe it really was time to walk away from paradise. Maybe it wasn’t paradise anymore.