by John Gerard Fagan
(Guts Publishing, 2021)
I’m of Japanese descent and moved to the UK as an infant, so I was intrigued by John Gerard Fagan’s new Scottish/Japanese poetic memoir Fish Town. Fagan is 29 years old and his life is in pieces in Glasgow, Scotland. He struggles to find a permanent job and is in a stagnant relationship. So, instead of continuing to tread water, he pawns his belongings, packs a suitcase, and moves over 5,000 miles away for a new life in Japan.
The story is told in small chapters that lack punctuation. You feel like you are in that new world with Fagan as he struggles to create a new life for himself in a small fishing port that was once famous for tuna but is now a shadow of its former self. The poems pull you into the fishing village and the pace keeps you there. The opening chapter reveals the sense of loneliness that never quite goes away:
only the truly lost wash up on the shore of Yaizu
a fish town in a forgotten part of Japan
faded posters of its 1960s glory days still littering the streets
but that’s where I was
I expected Fish Town would be similar to other gaijin (foreigner) memoirs about their whacky experiences living in Japan, but this was far removed from those texts, and exceeded my expectations, both as a memoir and as a collection of poetry. It is realistic and raw, rather than sugar-coated and cute, as the chapter about his first neighbor in Yaizu titled "a fisherman next door" reveals:
23:00 on a Wednesday
he blared salary man porn and grunted along to high-pitched squealing
I banged the wall thinking maybe he didn’t realise the volume
It only got louder
I got used to sleeping with headphones in
Fagan’s minimalism is perfect for this kind of epic story as we feel blasts of summer heat, the rotten smells of the surrounding factories, and the blinding lights of Tokyo that draw him closer like a moth with damaged wings. It holds nothing back; the poems are vulnerable and emotional, but also have power. Nothing comes easy, but Fagan possesses determination and work ethic in abundance. The chapter titled "wounds" is a perfect example of his mindset as he lives in a tiny, rural apartment and wonders about the other foreigners he has met so far:
some people take their wounds to a foreign land
some place far far away
a new start
can be someone completely new
but an act can only last so long before the real version of themselves comes out to
and takes over once more
foreign wounds don't heal in a place like Japan
they only get worse, fester, and bleed out
that's why most from the West don't last long
their experience should have been a week-long holiday
two at most.
As we move through the story, Fagan’s life twists through both rural and urban Japan. He joins the metal band Far Beyond Demise, wins a contract with a semi-professional football team in Shizuoka City, and a chance meeting with a Japanese actress and her cat in Tokyo shapes the narrative, which spans seven years. It is heartbreaking at times as Fagan gets his life together only to see it unravel time and time again.
I should have seen it coming
there was a scratch of a feeling it would all sour
and run into dark drains
but I ignored it
and didn’t look again
until that scratch was a puss-filled wound with flies drinking on the surface.
Readers of Fante will find familiarity with this debut writer, though it has a distinctly Scottish feeling to it. It blends the loneliness of Into the Wild, the blinding pace of Papillon, and the honesty of The Heroin Diaries. You can feel the homesickness, despair, and sense of not belonging. The chapter "five more times" about missing his elderly parents struck a chord and brought home the complex repercussions of his move and attempts to start a new life:
I worked out that if I stayed in Tokyo and went home every two years
and they lived to 70
I’d only see them five more times in my life
that thinking anchored me in the moment
I was too far away if I wanted that to change
At moments such as this, Fish Town left me speechless, thinking about my own life and choices. People like myself who are feeling lost and still looking to find their place in the world will relate to this collection. It is a compelling and original debut written from a unique perspective, in an idiosyncratic style. Much like the titles mentioned above, Fish Town has the makings of a cult classic.