Under the Surface with Boi No Good [Expanded Version]
What happens when local lines get crossed.
Chris McKinney’s fifth novel, Boi No Good, opens on tragedy: Three abused children are rescued by social workers from a broken-down bus, where they were abandoned by their ice-addicted mother. One of the children becomes known as Boi, and the book traces the paths of all three into adulthood as they join wildly disparate families on Oahu, then reconnect. We sat down with McKinney to learn more.
This online version is now expanded from our shorter Q&A, published in the December 2012 issue.
HONOLULU Magazine: Were there any lessons you learned from your previous books that you brought to writing this one?
McKinney: In my last two books, I got caught up in the idea that a contemporary American novelist is somehow required to make the mundane more interesting, especially because a lot of acclaimed novels now are like that. With Bolohead Row, it was the mundane nature of the person who goes to karaoke and dart bars night after night. After awhile, the book itself gets mundane. With Mililani Mauka, I took the suburbs and tried to make that interesting and get a local slant on it. With this one, I decided to put that aside and just let ’er rip. You know, life’s crazy, I didn’t think there was any reason for my fiction to be any less crazy.
HM: Boi does have a relentless energy, almost like a Tarantino experience, with amazing levels of violence.
M: [Laughs] Yeah!
HM: Were you surprised at how dark it got as you were writing it?
M: I knew before I wrote page one where at least two-thirds of the story would go, so nothing really surprised me. If anything, there was one breakthrough moment that forced me to shift the direction of the narrative. I was sitting in a garage with my older brother and he’s a firefighter and we’re having beers—and this is why he’s on the acknowledgement page—he had told me about other firefighters sitting around and talking about this welfare thing, this idea of “why doesn’t the state require people to volunteer for some kind of birth control if they want to collect their welfare checks?” As first responders, firefighters, police, they’re often the most fed up. So that sparked the idea, what if I had a governor in the book try to pass a law like that? Not thinking that it would actually pass, but thinking there’s enough people who would buy into that where it would be taken seriously.
HM: In a way, the idea of the bill was something that felt a little frustrating as a reader; I felt it went a little too far … but it’s clear it’s coming out of a populist frustration with these things.
M: I think that there are certainly moments in the novel where I’d understand a reader’s frustration. The idea was, whenever I was faced with a decision to go with the more, I guess you could say, conservative, believable side, or just go for it—for me, part of the fun is to take risks, so in this book instead of pulling back, I said, I’m just gonna go for it; it’s a little risky, but I’m going to go for it. The whole end of the book is one giant risk, basically.
HM: As a reader, I ultimately decided … you know how when you’re having a nightmare, incredibly unrealistic things happen that you don’t doubt for a moment because you’re in the nightmare? Given the life experiences of the characters and the subject matter, this book is like someone’s nightmare version of life in the Islands. So I ultimately took it as, “OK, the bill is part of that. This is our dark shadow side.”
M: I take that comparison to a believable nightmare as a compliment. I think that’s part of what I was going for.
HM: Is there an innocent character in this book that isn’t under the age of 10?
M: [Laughs.] When my editor did his first read through, he said that at least I’m an equal opportunity attack dog. I guess I’m letting everybody have it in the book.
HM: There’s an interesting tension in the book, which has a lot of characters who have a resentment of haoles or rich people and, at times, the book seems sympathetic but, at the same time it doesn’t let the characters off the hook for their own poor choices. The writing also depicts that resentment as a self-defeating delusion.
M: That was a conscious decision. I wanted balance. I’m not pushing some kind of specific political agenda or siding with one agenda over another. It was important to me to show that what every character is thinking is flawed in some way.
HM: The book could almost be required reading for a newcomer who might think that there’s stuff going on in Hawaii they don’t get, about how we get along or don’t get along. On the positive side, people say we’re a melting pot, in your book the heat that keeps the pot melted is mutual hatred: everyone seems a little racist about everybody else.
M: Yeah. My experience is [that our communities] are way more cloistered than a newcomer might guess. Think of Kaui Hemmings' book, The Descendents, I loved it. [But] that book is an example of how cloistered Hawaii is. The people in her book—there’s a chance that someone from where I’m from [Kahaluu] will never meet a character who’s like the character in The Descendents for their whole existence on this one little Island. And people are comfortable with that, with thinking “I’m not like these people, I’ll never meet these people, just don’t come in and mess with my business,” and vice versa. So the melting pot works so long as I stay here and you stay there and let me do my thing. That’s part of what goes on with the governor in Boi No Good, is, when that line is crossed, what happens. When you’re trying to affect what I’m doing here, then there’s problems and the rage that is right under the surface anyway with a character like Boi just explodes.
HM: Where did you grow up?
M: Kahaluu. This is how cloistered everything is: Once, about 18 years ago, my dad asked my younger brother to get something in town. He got lost. He’d never even driven into town before. Had his driver’s license for two years at that point.
HM: I grew up in Waipahu and I remember, as a kid, we never went into downtown.
M: In my early 20s, there’s maybe a handful of times I came downtown, gambling [laughs] that’s about it. Crazy how this place has changed, downtown.
HM: Right now there’s an uneasy truce between two different versions of Hotel Street. [We talk about Hotel Street, the plight of Otto and his cheesecake business, beset by threats from area thugs, [http://www.honolulumagazine.com/Honolulu-Magazine/May-2012/Afterthoughts-Chinatown-Lockdown/] and how nice, everyday people seem helpless in the face of such things.]
M: He’s too civilized, [Otto]. There’s a character in the book who says, “Violence is the only language everyone understands.” My dad used to say that when I was growing up. With some people, it’s the only language they understand.
HM: To make a civilization work, we delegate the violence to duly appointed authorities who then are bound by rules or limited by their own inefficiency as a bureaucracy. For those for whom violence is easy, and they don’t care about the consequences, they seem to go very far. I like how the book deals with the complications of that. The description of Boi’s physical sensation of rage was well stated, that “ready to go off” state. Maybe all men are like this, born a little bit angry?
M: Some people grow up watching it be an effective method of coping with stress. Sorta like Waipahu, Kahuluu, there are people who grow up watching their fathers, their uncles, react to stress with violence or the threat of violence and it’s effective, it works again and again and, as a kid, how are you not going to emulate that? It’s problem-solving. It’s how you solve a problem—go off. And once you tap into it a number of times, then it’s second nature, it becomes easy.
HM: The rage also seems tied in to a local inferiority complex.
M: There a bit in the book where it says the rich have their lawyers, the poor have their fists. There might be an inferiority complex involved, this concept of, “Oh, you think you’re better than me? Well, guess what, I can kick your ass.” That mentality. Chris Rock had a great skit on that, in one of his stand-ups. His was, you know African-Americans in the ghetto, a guy gets out of prison, he comes home they throw him a party. A guy comes home with a master’s degree and everybody gets in his face, “You think you’re smart? Well, you think you can kick my ass?” [Laughs] I think there’s a similar element that goes on here.
HM: To extent that some folks in Hawaii hang on to anger and dysfunction as a substitute for being functional, they will always be helpless.
M: It’s inevitable. That’s what I was trying to key in on; no matter how much you fight it, it’s going to happen. What a friend of mine likes to call “the frenzy of man.”
HM: What kind of research did you do?
M: Fortunately, I have a lot of friends in different areas, different demographics. I acknowledge a couple of attorneys I talked to, and they’d give me examples of the horrific cases they’ve had. The most striking thing is, while the depravity of the cases is shocking, the frequency is way more shocking. These things that go on, if you take [Boi’s sister] Glory’s childhood, for example, you read it and think it’s an uncommon incident in Hawaii, but it really isn’t. If you work in the public defender’s or prosecutor’s office, these type of cases come across your desk on a weekly basis. It’s more common than most people think. So I did that kind of research; legal, social services. For the Waikiki stuff, one of my friends is on the Waikiki safety board, so I talked to him about its vulnerability to natural disaster, talked to architects about the feasibility of Boi’s plan. I tried to make sure it’s as realistic as possible that these things could in fact happen. As far as the rural stuff, that part’s easy [laughs]. Boi’s childhood was the easiest part to write, took probably a week. The Governor Knotting stuff was hard, that’s maybe the section of society I’ve had the least face-to-face experience with. I worked at the Outrigger Canoe Club when I was younger, have friends who went to Punahou, but I was consciously careful of writing that part because I didn’t want to fall into caricatures of people’s impressions of what a Punahou High School grad is actually like. And I don’t think Knotting comes across that way, as a caricature. I tried to make him sympathetic, a real person.