Alexei Melnick’s debut novel Tweakerville is a riveting tragedy that attempts to recover a kind of heroism for Jesse Gomes, the novel’s young, delinquent protagonist who is a drug dealer, murderer, lost son, loyal friend, and protector of his community. The novel (and perhaps the novelist?) is hung up on what it means to look and to see across the class and race lines that the novel, like Jesse, necessarily crosses. Sheathed in a cover that markets a voyeuristic and pleasurable look into Hawaiʻi’s seedy “Ice World,” Melnick’s novel does indeed work as advertised. However, what you get largely depends on where you are positioned in relation to the novel’s subject matter and characters. For certain audiences, Melnick orchestrates an empowering self-recognition through the wit and intelligence of his characters and their languages. For others, the novel works as a Trojan horse: indicting the very middle-class audience that is likely to pick up the book. Melnick forces his readers to stare in horror at the darkness of his characters’ lives, and then suddenly turns Jesse’s narration back upon those same readers, berating their privileged views of existences that at other moments readers may participate in misrepresenting or denying.
Through a paradoxical and impossible narrative (Spoiler: Jesse tells his story seemingly from the grave) Melnick allows Jesse to emerge as a tragic hero who knows how the system works and is empowered enough to choose his own destruction as the only honorable path. One might complain that Melnick thus formulates a situation with no hope, no future, and no options besides violence and self-destruction. Still, that Melnick’s novel allows Jesse to narrate his reality to the very audience that wishes to stereotype and consume him is no small matter considering the context of rampant structural violence inflicted on men of color in America and Hawaiʻi.
While the work thus stands in relevance to contemporary struggles around urban racialized violence, Melnick formulates the axis of oppression in Tweakerville in clearly marked class terms, emphasizing Jesse’s former working class home life and giving us very few clues about his or other characters’ ethnic backgrounds. It is clear that for Melnick, class is the relevant metric in Hawaiʻi, not race, and certainly not positionality with respect to settler colonialism. However, the characters that do carry clear racial markers are worth taking a closer look at. There is Vili, a friend of Jesse’s whose name, idyllic backcountry family life, naive open-heartedness, and eventual incarceration can be read as marking him as Polynesian and/or indigenous. While Jesse sees Vili as a victim and is enraged on his behalf at the abuses he suffers, Vili always seems a few mental steps ahead of Jesse in his understanding of what the score is. Is there more to Vili that Jesse cannot see and that we the readers are meant to understand?
Then there is Charlene, the overdosed dead girl whom Jesse finds after a party, and her trio of avengers (two military men and Charlene’s bereaved mother). These characters are all explicitly identified as white, and while they seem to work merely as the plot device that ensures Jesse’s tragic end, they function in the novel in at least one more important way. They summon up deep cultural resonances from the contemporary presence of white U.S. military personnel in the islands to the Massie case and racist fears of miscegenation and violence against whites. Or, we might connect Charlene and Jesse’s tragic stories in another direction. Melnick links two horrific scenes of bodily desecration, burial, and execution at the start and end of the novel that are vaguely reminiscent of the moʻolelo of Kahalaopuna, the deity of Mānoa known for her story of repeated murder and burial at the hands of her lover from Kailua. Kahalaopuna’s ʻaumakua the pueo with his healing tears is nowhere to be found in the novel, but Jesse and his buddies are linked in one scene to a school of hammerhead sharks, recalling the Kailua lover’s transformation into a shark in some versions of the story, and Kahalaopuna’s final death in his jaws. This connection is not apparent or easy, but the resonances are worth considering for their implications about the nature of violences of all kinds, whether gendered, self-inflicted, or structural.
There are a number of articles that might be written about the treatment of gender and sexuality in Tweakerville. Melnick has created a masculinist narrative if ever there was one, from Jesse’s idolization turned rejection of his father to the demise of his role model, Robby, the benevolent drug dealer and fighter. Then there is the madonna/whore dichotomy of Kapika and Amber; Kapika as a figure of sterile and infantilizing motherhood; the homosocial exchange of Amber and her status as a supposedly empowered prostitute. We could also consider the moments of casual homophobia; the treatment of Cutchies the enraged dyke lover as a respected/feared spectacle; and Jesse’s protective relationships with his mother and sisters. While Melnick has created a character in Jesse that is adept at theorizing the structures of power that oppress him, the narrative seems unaware of how Jesse’s investments in a certain kind of working-class local masculinity do violence to other subjectivities. Beyond that, these investments consistently foreclose possibilities that, it is implied, are simply, tragically, not possible.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the difficulties I’ve summarized here, Tweakerville remains, to me, an important novel of Hawaiʻi that deserves greater critical and scholarly attention.
Review by Kelsey Amos
Kelsey Amos is a PhD student in the English department at UH Mānoa. A former managing editor of Hawaiʻi Review and small-time poet (published at paradisereview.org), she values the literatures and writers of Hawaiʻi and wants to talk about, praise, criticize, and support them.