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Hawaii, A Novel by Mark Panek

Hearing the title of this book most people will automatically recall the epic James Michener novel—the one spawning multiple films, the one always recommended by tourists to people on Internet travel forums who ask “What Hawaii books should I read before/during my trip to paradise?”

So, for Lō‘ihi Press and Mark Panek to call their new novel Hawai‘i—ho, must get some major alas! Isle author Chris McKinney states this book is “a much-needed contemporary answer to James Michener’s Hawaii, [it] takes Michener’s ‘golden men’ vision of racial harmony out back and beats it.” But it’s more than just Michener. Before you even set your eyes on the first page, this book asserts itself as if to say, “This IS Hawai‘i.” And it is. This book is Mark Panek’s sweeping, epic tale about the modern Hawai‘i we live in, the one we call our home, the one that is getting harder to live in every day, one that many of us scrape by just to survive.

Hawaii takes place in the power vacuum of a recently deceased, nine-term United States Senator. With the formerly entrenched system of good-ol-boy power up in the air, and Hawai‘i becoming a place where our best and brightest are forced to leave in order to thrive, a collection of local characters on convergent paths aim to improve their lot and their vision of Hawai‘i’s future. The story is told primarily from the perspective of four characters—Russell Lee, a Hawaiian state senate president; Kekoa Meyer, a smart, middle-aged Hawaiian thug; Makana Irving-Kekumu, a Hawaiian studies professor and activist; and Sean Hayashi, a young real-estate developer. These four unique individuals from vastly different backgrounds, who all have great personal ambition, in essence, ultimately want the same thing despite their conflicting views on how to get there and the impact it will have.

The crux of the story revolves around the potential development of a resort-like property near Kahuku by a billionaire Chinese casino mogul. Lee, who is racked by gambling debts, goes “all-in” with the project to cover his obligations and serve as a launching pad to the Governor’s office. The rest of the main cast provide varying outlooks of the support, opposition, backdoor politics and cutthroat competition involved in a potential billion-dollar real-estate deal and legislative gamble that could potentially change the face of Hawai‘i. Watch the trailer for more!

This is the kind of book that, despite its size, once picked up is difficult to put down. The story and all its complementary pieces are so enthralling—full of insider deals, backstabbing, and genuine local-boy moments that are described brilliantly by Panek. One of the things this book does really great, and in some ways sadistically so, is the scathing undressing of people living in and vising Hawai‘i. Whether it’s the prissy Niu Valley religious girl with a kinky secret; the union-protected local-Japanese state-worker-lifer; or some trust-fund, Reyn Spooner Aloha shirt wearing California haole; the observations are plentiful, brutally honest, and viciously humorous in their meticulous descriptiveness. Maybe they are a bit stereotypical, and it’s all in the eye of the beholder, but they’re so accurate in the minute details that you can’t help but smirk, even if it’s describing you.

There is also a deep cast of well-fleshed supporting characters, and the book works extremely well when all of these people interact with one another, slowly discovering each others strengths, weaknesses and desires. Ambitious in scope, Hawaii takes on a wide-range of people, social structures and topics, either directly or through keen commentary. From the power of the Mormon influence, to the mainland millionaires who raise property values on their second-or-third Hawai‘i homes, to the UH football obsession that blinds us from the sinister plots happening in our own backyard, to Hawaiian rights activists who forgo success and money to take principled yet losing stands against developments, Panek skillfully brings the many troubled facets of New Hawai‘i together into a coherent and thrilling story.

Mark Panek has truly crafted an epic tale in the Hawai‘i we all know and still love, a paradise with scars dug deep into the land. The book is unafraid to dig into the scabs, re-open the wounds, and show us the color of the blood inside. It’s a story encompassing power, revealing the racial tensions, socioeconomic disparity, outsider influences, and local-boy politics that control the land we live on. If you’ve read any of Panek’s previous non-fiction books, especially the poignant Big Happiness, then you’ll know that he is a talented writer who is able to weave together local narratives and smaller stories gracefully into a web of greater social consciousness. In Hawaii, Panek does this masterfully again with fictional characters that come fully realized, capturing the deep-seated feelings we often share of each other. Here, we are not always united under the guise of “aloha,” we are divided by race, class, education, physical appearance, occupation—really anything that can be defined and pulled apart. Hawaii succeeds in constructing a blisteringly authentic representation of the Hawai‘i we live in today, one that stands tall in its unapologetic honesty.

Must read.

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Hawaii, a novel
by Mark Panek
Lō‘ihi Press, 2013
568 pages, Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-9822535-3-3