Back from the Grave

His former lawyer takes a controversial labor leader and puts him in the center of a romance.


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Even dead, Walter Kupau seems to leap from the pages of Lori Aquino’s new novel, The Ghost of Walter Kupau. Controversial, charismatic, tough-talking, Kupau headed up the Hawaii Carpenters Union, Local 475, until his sudden death in 1999. He won the carpenters some excellent contracts, paid himself a princely $250,000 a year, was charged with assaulting a construction manager and never made any bones having spent six months in a federal pen for perjury.

Attorney Aquino spent three years as counsel for the Carpenters Union—but spent far longer than that honing her writing. For more than a decade, she’d leave work, pick up her three sons, make them dinner. “The minute the dishes were done, I’d sit down and write for six hours, till midnight. The next day, I’d get up and do it all over again. At work, I’d often be just waiting for the chance to start writing again.”

The result? Five unpublished manuscripts.

Then, two days before the deadline for the 2003 HONOLULU Magazine fiction contest, she sat down and wrote a short scene with a wild premise. Her main character, Ranae Roces (“Roaches” to Walter Kupau), asks Kupau’s ghost for a favor: She wants him to kill an FBI agent who has loved and left her, but still haunts her dreams.


Lori Aquino, author of The Ghost of Walter Kupau.

Photo: Rae Huo

It was a powerful scene, designed to evoke The Godfather. “Walter wasn’t Don Corleone, but a lot of people thought of him that way, so I played off it.”

The story was a runner-up in that year’s HONOLULU contest. “That turned out to be good,” says Aquino. “If I’d won, I would have tossed the story in a drawer. Because I didn’t, I sat down and kept writing.”

Having brought back Kupau from the dead, Aquino needed to give him something to do. Her five previous books had been romances, “chick books,” as she calls them. “I was a single mom, I didn’t get out much. I lived in my imagination.”

Still, Kupau seemed an uneasy fit for a chick book. “I couldn’t do that to Walter. I didn’t want to sanitize him. I wanted him to be Walter, even though the language offended my mother when she read it.”

The resultant book is a wild combination of a tough-talking, realistic Kupau and the world’s least sentimental romance novel. Aquino’s imagination runs rampant—there’s even a “watcher,” a guardian angel who is perhaps the least angelic angel in fiction, who likes TV better than his duties, and who appears to humans looking like Ron Howard in Happy Days.

It all seems to work. Partially because it demonstrates Kupau’s adage that “everyone eventually gets what’s coming to him.” Partially because it’s a richly meditated evocation of love, life, death and loss. And partially because Aquino can flat out write.

Here’s the Roaches character talking: “If Walter wasn’t getting all the airtime he got impatient. You’d think that death would have mellowed him. I try to be brief.”

When Aquino was beginning work, she called Kupau’s widow, Davenie, for permission to write about him. “She said that right before he died, he’d wondered aloud if anyone would ever write about him.”

No one could have anticipated he’d end up in such a magical little book.


 

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