Chris McKinney’s New Book Dives into Honolulu’s Mysterious Underworld

As if writing a novel about his descent into Honolulu’s hostess-bar and criminal scene wasn’t enough, the Kahalu‘u native is going Hollywood with his trademark brashness and chessmaster gamesmanship.
Chris McKinney
Photo: Aaron Yoshino 


Chris McKinney, 43, has carved out a moai-size reputation with novels that are tough, smart and grounded. Since The Tattoo, his first book, in 2000, the Honolulu Community College writing professor has grown a Mainland and world audience. Then his marriage and life fell apart and McKinney discovered his own depths—and dove into Honolulu’s underworld, the subject of his sixth novel, Yakudoshi: Age of Calamity (Mutual Publishing, September).  


How did this book come about?

Chris McKinney: It’s the first thing I’ve written that’s semiautobiographical. The main character goes to prison for nine years; my prison was nine years of marriage in Mililani. On getting out, both my character and I discover this world that has changed on us, this world of night life, smartphones, Facebook, social media. In the 1990s, a drug dealer would be a guy in a super-tight shirt with gold chains. I met people in the past few years who did not fit that profile. And to think that a skinny, 95-pound woman could be a big dealer was quite an eye-opener. 


The book portrays a world that is very unsentimental. Money talks. 


CM: I did see this. I want to sound anything but like an old crabby man talking about the generation below him. But I don’t know, man. There are pieces missing in young people today that used to be there. The level of materialism, it’s brand-named out.


Is that why your drug kingpin Olive says, “It isn’t a good time to be young, male, handsome and poor?” 

CM: I remember a time when, if you were 20-something, you’d hook up with somebody who was 20-something. I don’t see that anymore. But I do see 30-somethings and 40-somethings chasing after 20-somethings at a far, far higher rate. I might be guilty of this myself: My wife is 26. 


Did you ever feel as if you might not pull out of the dive? 

CM: I knew that if I stayed there I wouldn’t last very long. I didn’t fear anything anymore. I stepped away from it because I met somebody who was cool as hell. Otherwise I’d still be there.     


You optioned your own book—very unusual, almost unheard of—and wrote a mini-series on spec.

CM: I got my ass kicked in L.A. a couple of times, so I’m learning. This time, I optioned it and I wrote and rewrote the series. We got people attached before it was published. Sung Kang of Fast & Furious, Justin Wong of Twilight. James Sereno of Kinetic Productions—we made Paradise Broken together. 


What’s it like to pitch a Hawai‘i project in Hollywood?

CM: Hawai‘i is not that hard of a pitch. The skin colors of the characters, that’s what makes it a tough pitch. The question is, how do you break that? With Sung, I know him, I believe in him, I think he’d be killer as the main guy. It would be unprecedented to see an Asian guy play what is essentially an American story. 


What comes after your own age of calamity? 

CM: After two or three years of pure freedom, my pattern over the past couple of years has been, wake up and feed my daughter, take her to school, then write. Now I’m married again, and I have another child coming.  


From Yakudoshi: Age of Calamity by Chris McKinney

I’m sitting in a police SUV, Olive’s cop is sitting driver’s side, me passenger. We’re in the lot of some ghetto park, the kind packed with homeless tents. I wonder if my dad is out there in one of them. 


Olive is wearing a loose white tank top that says “Earn Your Wings.” She’s scraping rocket fuel off a block and weighing shit out on a tiny electric scale. “I’ll give you one more ball,” she says. “And a little extra for you.” 


I eye the scale. Yup, four grams. “In one week, you outsold my army of ratchets,” she says. “And here’s some pharma.” She hands me sealed bottles, one by one. Xanax, Hydro, Percs, and the king of them all, Oxycodone. Pure. The only one people can cook and inject. Each bottle has its label ripped off it. I stuff all the crap in my backpack. “Hwai-ting, baby,” Olive says. 


I’m about to ask a question, and I don’t know if I’m gonna overstep my bounds. I pause then turn to the cop. “If I asked you to find someone’s address, could you do it for me?” The cop turns around and looks at Olive. She nods. “What’s the name?” he asks. I tell him. I wanna find Sarah. I wanna see my son. I wanna see Bruce Jr. 


The cop punches Sarah’s maiden name into the computer, and we get a hit, first crack. I take down the address on my phone. “Not gonna see you on the front page tomorrow or anything like that?” Olive asks. “Thanks, guys,” I say. “Nah, it’s nothing like that.”


“You read?” Olive asks.


“No,” I say. “Not since I got out.” Which is bullshit. I didn’t read a goddamn thing in prison. She rummages and pulls out a book. She hands it to me. A literate drug kingpin. Yup, the world has changed. 


I take the book. Love in the Time of Cholera. “What’s it about?” I ask.


“Love,” she says.


“Isn’t cholera some kinda disease?” I ask. 


“Yeah,” Olive says. “But isn’t love, too?” 


I put the book in my backpack, nod, and step out of the SUV.


Copyright 2016 by Chris McKinney.


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