Michael Knight’s new novel, The Typist, is set in Tokyo just after World War II, during the first months of the American occupation under Gen. Douglas MacArthur (referred to as “Bunny” in the book). Based on months of historical research, the book offers a vivid account of post-war Japan’s physical ruin and social chaos. In this excerpt Knight describes an underground market where the protagonist, Francis Vancleave, searches for MacArthur’s umbrella after a disastrous outing with the general’s 8-year-old son.
The market I had in mind was located in a kind of ersatz square behind Ueno Station, the space cleared by American B-29s. It was close to the theater, the most likely place, I thought, for somebody to pawn Bunny’s umbrella. You could buy almost anything, not just consumer goods—clothes, food, sundries—but industrial products as well—lumber, gasoline, fertilizer, all diverted from government supplies. There were stalls selling fish and crabs and frogs, selling stockings and perfume, selling dirty books and dirty magazines, American whiskey, Russian vodka, cigarettes, tea leaves, jewelry; tents in which panpan girls took men between their legs next to tables offering free Bibles and tables manned by communist pamphleteers and tables set up like outdoor bars serving katsutori soku, selling bags of rice and grain, salvaged rubber, tatami matting, watches, record albums, record players, silverware, secondhand kimonos and school uniforms, boots, sandals, cameras, brass buttons—all of it pawned or traded by somebody in desperate need of something else, sweet potatoes, melons, live chickens, live songbirds, bricks and mortar, ink and paper, dye, bolts of cotton, spools of copper wire, candy, toys, and more and more and on and on, all the ingredients for building a new civilization at your fingertips and marked up three hundred percent. I didn’t make it very deep into the market before I realized it was no use. Either the story about the lieutenant was false or he was the luckiest man alive. There was just too much ground to cover. I stood there for a long time, the market swirling around me, sound and motion and stink, the world gone dizzy in my sight, the sun disappearing behind Ueno Station, its shadow cutting like a blade down the center of the square. Then I turned and walked away and hired a rickshaw to take me home.
The Typist © 2010 by Michael Knight, reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove, Atlantic, Inc.