Out Of Water: A Review Of John Gerard Fagan's Fish Town...
John Gerard Fagan’s Fish Town is not only the latest in the genre of literary memoirs to have been published recently, it’s one of the most interesting. Written in what could be described as free verse, the chapters are short and punchy, recounting the writer’s time living and working as a teacher in Japan, particularly in the village of Yaizu - the ‘fish town’ of the title.
Clashes of cultures have been written before, but there is a raw and very real edge to Fish Town. Fagan's journey is blown off course from the start as he thought he was heading for a job in cosmopolitan Tokyo. His disappointment at promises broken is shared in the schools where he teaches who thought they were getting an American tutor, apparently highly prized in Japan. As his life in Yaizu unfolds he comes across a variety of misunderstandings and prejudices which fire his writing. As a result, Fagan’s anger and exasperation are often exposed revealing an honest diarist who is prepared to be self-critical, although with a wry eye for the absurd.
There's lots of fascinating detail which only accentuates Fagan's unusual experiences. A school obsession with USA For Africa's 1985 charity record 'We Are the World', being pranked by mischievous school children, Japanese football etiquette (which is about as far from Scotland's as it is possible to get), the (sur)reality of being asked to be Santa for the Christmas festivities, and learning how to 'scream sing' as a member of local rock band, Far Beyond Demise. These are just a few of Fagan's unusual experiences.
It's a book which many will relate to in terms of spending time in other cultures, but rarely have such adventures been addressed in such depth and detail. This is no 'What I Did On My Gap Year' publication, rather it's an uncompromising account of the highs and lows of life lived in another land. Fagan battles his own demons as well as the barriers put in his way by the system he finds himself in, and, partly due to the way Fish Town is written, failures and successes follow hard on each other's heels.
There is a quote from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road at the beginning of Fish Town which is apt as the spirit of the Beat Generation is clearly in evidence, particularly Allen Ginsberg and 'honorary beat' Charles Bukowski. Fagan's writing is similarly visceral, sensual, and arresting, and he's never afraid to turn his coruscation and frustration on himself. There’s a rhythm throughout which is driven by the writing itself. It's always thrilling to discover a new voice in Scottish writing, and with John Gerard Fagan we have one who stands apart. What comes next is an exciting prospect.
John Gerard Fagan is going to be guest on the SWH! Podcast in the near future.
A version of this review first appeared in SNACK Magazine.