From the Publisher
Janice Greene San Francisco Chronicle A fascinating first novel....Audrey Hepburn's Neck is like origami, put together with grace and ingenuity.
Mary Jo Salter Los Angeles Times Book Review On page after page, Brown's touch, both as observer and stylist, is sure and accurate....It's a rare writer who combines such delicacy with a zany sense of humor....[an] acute and acutely funny novel.
David Walton Minneapolis Star-Tribune Audrey Hepburn's Neck is . . . a sweetly sentimental, smartly comical tale.... Very well-written and affecting... Truly pleasurable.... A sure-response winner.
Audrey Hepburn's Neck is a disarmingly funny book, if one that shimmers with tragedy. It's that very mesh that makes Alan Brown's first novel so appealing: this is outsider-lit without self-pity, a fresh tumble into the margins in which every moment of alienation is countered by understated observations about the clash, and occasional synchronicity, between all things American and Japanese. Set largely in Tokyo, the novel delves into both a dense cityscape of futuristic kitsch -- with its colorfully monikered Love Burger, Let's California Beer Garden and Fly Sexy Snack Bar -- and the quieter reaches of rural Japan where Toshiyuki Okamoto, or Toshi, came of age in an unadorned room above his father's noodle shop. Now 23, Toshi has landed a job as a cartoonist in Tokyo, plus an American best friend, Paul, a gay ad exec with a huge apartment and equally expansive appetites, and an American squeeze, Jane, who teaches at the Very Romantic English Academy. Then there's Lucy, yet another American. She's a composer with a neck as lovely as that of Audrey Hepburn, the woman whose onscreen magnetism gave 9-year-old Toshi his first jolt of fascination with Western ways.
Brown, an American who spent seven years in Tokyo as a Fulbright scholar, renders the point of view of a young Japanese man with an insidery bent, even as he grants Toshi the kinds of quirks and sensitivities that transcend borders. In one fine sketch, Toshi is flummoxed when Paul and Lucy, upon first meeting, find a kind of easy grace as compatriots that Toshi will never have with either of them: "He is hurt and angry and can't distinguish between longing and memory. Who is he angry at? he wonders, panicking. Paul? Lucy? A mother who left him? . . . Why doesn't anyone ever tell him the most important things?"
Equally sharp -- and impeccably droll -- is a scene in which Toshi's boss shows off his new rent-a-dog, procured to reduce work stress, just as a bracing earthquake tilt-a-whirls the premises. Given the multitude of temblors in his short life, Toshi's sense of security is anything but absolute. Yet, as tenderly imagined in Audrey Hepburn's Neck, his quest for connectedness is as heroic as they come. --Salon
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Writing with the assurance of a born novelist, Brown has produced a witty, touching coming-of-age story that is a keenly observed, diverting depiction of Japanese-American culture clash. Ever since his ninth birthday, when he saw his first Audrey Hepburn film, narrator Toshi Okamoto has fantasized about foreign women. When Toshi, now a young commercial artist in Tokyo, is seduced by Jane, his teacher at the Very Romantic English Academy, he finds the aggressively sexy, self-dramatizing American woman confusing, without realizing that she is psychotic. Not only Americans are unknowable, however; so are Toshi's parents. It was difficult growing up in the small northern town of Hokkaido after his mother left his father, to move not far away across the peninsula, and Toshi has always felt socially uncomfortable and embarrassed because of his parents' estrangement. Theirs had been a household ruled by silence, and one of the secrets Toshi unlocks in the course of this narrative is the reason for his family's sadness and isolation. Meanwhile, however, he undergoes a series of adventures with other Americans: his gay friend, Paul, and the composer Lucy, both of whom teach him some essential truths. These events take place against a backdrop of daily events in postwar Japan, from the 1960s to the 1980s, a society that is changing almost as fast as Toshi's perceptions of life. The Emperor is dying; women are auditioning to become the wife of the Crown Prince; anti-American riots are sweeping the country. Brown tells his tale in spare but vigorous prose, energized by dazzling visual images and haunting metaphors. The reader is caught up in Toshi's fear, excitement and frustration as he encounters strange and amazing Western concepts, and as his notion of himself changes. This captivating first novel is delightfully buoyant and full of surprises.
School Library Journal
YA-A coming-of-age novel set in contemporary Japan. Toshi is haunted by his troubled childhood. Through a series of flashbacks, readers learn that his parents were cold and distant and that his mother left the family when he was eight. One of the few pleasures of the boy's early life was watching Hollywood movies. Toshi finishes his university studies, becomes a comic-book artist, and has a series of affairs with American women. He tries to find his way in the sophisticated world of expatriot society in Tokyo. All of these threads are woven together to create the story of a confused, unhappy young man who is uncertain about how to approach life. When he is called home because of his father's death, he is reunited with his mother, who relates the story of her past. She was a Korean teenager forced into a sex camp for Japanese soldiers during the war, and was rescued and cared for by a young soldier who became Toshi's father. When he learns that truth about his parents and the source of the deep sadness that enveloped them, Toshi is able to accept himself and build a relationship with the woman who loves him. This well-written novel with an interesting mix of characters also presents an amusing view of American customs through the eyes of a young Japanese man.Penny Stevens, Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Mary Jo Salter
On page after page, Brown's touch, both as observer and stylist, is sure and accurate….It's a rare writer who combines such delicacy with a zany sense of humor….[an] acute and acutely funny novel.
Los Angeles Times Book Review
Audrey Hepburn's Neck is a wonderful novel…extraordinarily evocative of the mishmash of cultures and mores that is modern Japan….Alan Brown captures, with great sensitivity, the isolation of a man whose best friend is a wealthy, gay American, whose girlfriends are always American, but whose parents do not speak to one another, nor to him, and who have offered him no hint of his own history….A lovely book. It made me laugh, it made me cry, and it taught me lots I did not know about another country. You cannot ask much more of a novel.
The Times (London)
[A] fascinating first novel…..Audrey Hepburn's Neck is like origami, put together with grace and ingenuity.
San Francisco Chronicle
Read an Excerpt
From Chapter One:
According to its brochure, the Very Romantic English Academy occupies the third and fourth floors of the Hysteric Glamour Building, upstairs from My Charming Home interior furnishings, a Häagen-Dazs ice cream parlor, and the Cherry Blossom Discount Camera Center, and is only a seven-minute walk up Dogenzaka Hill from Tokyo's Shibuya Station, where the Ginza, Hanzamon, Inokashira, Toyoko, Shin-Tamagawa, and Yamanote train lines all converge on top of a Tokyu Department Store, two soba stands, the Love Bun German bakery and coffee bar, and a branch of Williams-Sonoma.
Twice each week, Toshi hurries up Dogenzaka Hill, checks his Swatch watch in the lobby: six minutes. He never misses Jane Borden's Intermediate English Conversation class. He raises his hand and asks and answers more questions, and in better English, than anyone else except for the Ishikawa sisters, who lived for three years in Hawaii where their father owns a papaya plantation.
"Jane Borden. Borden, like the ice cream, like the cow, like Lizzie who chopped up her father with an ax," she tells her bewildered students on the first day of class. She throws open all the windows, as if she is freeing caged birds, and they can hear ten thousand angry rice farmers chanting at a rally in front of Shibuya Station: "No American rice. No American rice. Keep the market closed. No American rice."
"I want you to forget that you're in school when you're in this room with me," she says, rearranging their chairs so that they circle her like planets around the sun. She perches on the edge of her desk and she beams. She drinks coffee from a huge white mug with her own initials painted on it. She writes her name on the blackboard in English and then again in phonetic Japanese.
"Jane Borden. I'm thirty years old. I come from New York City in New York State in the United States of America," she tells them proudly, as if these are things she has achieved rather than accidents of fate. "No, I'm not married. You can call me Jane. We don't have to be formal in here. I want you to think of me as someone you can talk to about anything. I'm always available. I'm here for you."
Toshi is sure she is looking at him when she writes her home phone number on the blackboard, each successive numeral larger and loopier than the one before.
She is as slender as a Japanese girl, but she moves constantly and talks too quickly. She wears red tights and red cowboy boots and antique silk sarongs from Thailand, she tells them, which she drapes around her neck like voluminous scarves. Jewelry: Hoops and pendulums, sharp daggers, pots and pans, and cloisonné tigers dangle from her salmon-colored ears; bead and bone and silver necklaces from Sri Lanka hang down between her breasts. Jade and feather fetishes flutter in the breeze that always seems to accompany her even when the windows are closed.
"Language is communication, it is social intercourse," she says, prancing around the classroom.
"You're standing in front of Courbet's Woman with a Parrot at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and you see a beautiful woman all alone." She pauses in front of Toshi's desk and stares at him. "Your eyes meet. Your heart beats fast. Your palms sweat. She waits for you to speak. What do you say to her?"
The class is silent, waiting. Toshi's heart beats fast. New York. Courbet. His palms sweat. Jane brushes her dark hair out of her seaweed green eyes. She reaches out her hand to him, and her bracelets spin, rings from Bali and Katmandu on every finger.
"It is nice to meet you," Toshi says, but the words come out stilted, badly inflected. Someone giggles. Is this American-style education? He is confused and seduced. The next week he wears his tightest jeans to class. When the weather turns warm, he wears his gym shorts. He smiles and nods his head constantly when Jane speaks.
Toshi is fascinated by American women.
Two days before his twenty-third birthday, she stops him in the hallway. Classroom doors open and shut, flutter like eyelids.
"I was impressed with the talk you gave today about your job. You expressed some very deep feelings."
"Thank you," Toshi says, backing away slightly. Jane always encourages them to express "deep feelings," but no one in the class, except for the Ishikawa sisters, seems to know what they are or how to express them.
"Comic books are such an important art form in Japan. You must be a very talented artist."
"Yes," he says, then, too late, realizes his mistake. He should have said no. He is mesmerized by Jane, she makes him thirsty when she smiles.
He recovers. "I work for another manga artist. I only draw what he tells me."
"Still, it's special. I'd love to see some of your drawings." She moves in closer. In her boots, she's as tall as he is. "You know, I'm not just an English teacher. I'm an artist, too. An actress."
"Really? In movies?"
She laughs, and her red lips part to reveal small, even, white teeth, then beyond, wonderful darkness. "No. On the stage. The theater. You know?"
He nods, too nervous to speak. Is she famous in America?
"I have this script, in Japanese, that a director gave me, and I need help translating it. If you're interested, I'd pay you. It could be fun."
"Yes. Fun," he says, but he isn't sure in response to what. Her words dart past him like startled birds. Around them, the buzz and whirl subside as students move on to their next classes and the hall empties. Then they are alone. Can she see that he is shaking? American women still do this to him.
"So, do you have plans for your birthday?" she asks, and he is so astonished to see her turn red with embarrassment that he feels himself blush too.
"No plans." He scrambles for something else to say, but all that comes to mind are learned phrases: America is a wide country. Japan has four seasons. Do you take traveler's checks? He wants desperately to impress her, but she isn't giving him time to put his words in order.
"Well, why don't I take you out to dinner and we can talk about the script?"
Now he thinks of something to say. "How did you know it was my birthday?"
"I looked up your records in the office. You were born in the Year of the Monkey, right?"
"Yes! The monkey! Yes." He relaxes. At last, something he knows. Monkey. He once saw monkeys at a hot spring resort in the snowy mountains of Hokkaido. The monkeys came down and bathed in the pools.
DON'T LOOK IN THEIR EYES OR THEY WILL ATTACK YOU the posted signs warned.
"I was born in the Year of the Tiger," Jane says. "We should work well together. You know: the monkey riding on the tiger's back."
Before he can reply, she turns and walks into the classroom, and shuts the door behind her.
Toshi is out of breath. He staggers like a drunken salary man on a midnight commuter train out of Tokyo Station. This is what he likes best yet dreads most about American women: You can never tell, even with the ones you think you know, what they're going to do next.
Copyright © 1996 by Alan Brown