The ghosts of the past haunt us in incalculable ways as we struggle toward a future that remains dim. Auburn-based author Christian Kiefer’s new novel, Phantoms, deals with the twin legacies of Japanese internment during World War II and unfinished business in Vietnam.
An important literary voice coming into his own, Kiefer here follows up 2012’s auspicious debut, The Infinite Tides, about an astronaut’s agonized return to suburban Earth after the death of his teenage daughter in a car accident, and The Animals (2015), a noir saga about two friends, one with a criminal past.
Phantoms breaks new ground, weaving together the tales of World War II serviceman Ray Takahashi, the son of orchard farmers displaced from their Placer County home into the Tule Lake detention camp, and John Frazier, a disillusioned Vietnam vet returning home with deep regrets about his role in raining death on innocents.
Their two paths cross as John slowly learns, through his aunt, Evelyn Wilson, and Ray’s mother, Kim Takahashi, what transpired decades ago between their families. Mysteries abound. Why did Homer, Evelyn’s husband, turn against Ray’s father after promising him he’d be welcome home after his enforced exile? What was the nature of Ray’s relationship with Helen, Evelyn and Homer’s daughter?
The knots are gradually untangled, despite unreliable narrators (chiefly Evelyn) who keep important facts about these mysteries, and Ray’s disappearance after the war, from those who loved him.
Frazier has his own demons, including a drug and alcohol habit he can’t shake as he crashes at his grandmother’s house, working at a gas station and blocked on the big “Vietnam Book” he aspires to write. “Indeed it had come to feel, in the year or so I’d been stateside, that the war had been some strange dream from which I had never entirely awakened,” he reflects.
Ray, too, is among the walking dead. When he comes home, he’s met by xenophobia and worse. “The whole spread of the landscape to the north seemed something he might have dreamed—and there it was again, the idea that he was somehow asleep and dreaming all this, even though it was right here, present and alive,” Kiefer writes. “It had all happened over there, in that other place, in another world than this.”
The dream quickly turns to nightmare. And it’s left to damaged interlocutors like Frazier—a modern-day version of Hamlet’s friend Horatio—to give a final account of senseless, pointless violence, of mistaken notions of racial pride, and of misplaced familial loyalty. As relevant as today’s headlines, it’s another cautionary tale full of foolish ideas about “immigrants’’ and American adventurism.
Kiefer comes by his ability to take on such themes honestly. A longtime Placer County resident, he often deals with rural folks, far removed from the concerns of Berkeley or Santa Monica, in his work. He’s known California bard Gary Snyder since he was a kid—his father was Snyder’s car mechanic, and their friendship continues.
Responding to questions by email, Kiefer writes, “[Snyder’s] work on the environment and its various language(s), in particular, has been important to me. Not only in the sense of ‘know your plants’ but that human beings are part of the natural world in a way that we like to forget. Its rhythms are our rhythms. We are of it and so it is of us.”
A longtime faculty member at American River community college, the father of seven now directs the MFA program in creative writing at Ashland University and was recently named the West Coast editor of the Paris Review. But Kiefer remains true to his blue-collar roots. “I did some teaching for a Stanford program soon after I finished my PhD and decided pretty quickly that I needed to be back with my people—folks who are broke and/or disenfranchised from the system,” he explains.
“I write about being outside the urban bubble because it’s really all I know,” Kiefer allows. “I’ve lived in and around Auburn, California, pretty much my whole life. That’s about the largest-sized town I can much deal with. So it’s somewhat selfish of me, I guess, to continue to set stories in smaller towns and rural areas. It’s not an affectation—it’s just what I know.”
Meanwhile, he chases phantoms, and gives ghosts their due.
Three war novels of California and the West
• Dog Soldiers, by Robert Stone (1974): Stone’s iconic account of a Vietnam War reporter and his merchant marine buddy’s disastrous heroin-smuggling deal captures a lost era with exquisite pain, anger, and accuracy.
• Hold It ’Til It Hurts, by T. Geronimo Johnson (2012): Former Stegner fellow Johnson’s literary debut is an Odyssean portrayal of Achilles Conroy, an African American Afghanistan veteran who returns to New Orleans in search of his lost brother, Troy. Then Katrina hits.
• Son of Amity, by Peter Nathaniel Malae (2018): Oregon-based author Malae centers his novel on Pika, a half-Samoan man who returns from prison to forge a life with his sister and her damaged Iraq vet husband. Tweakers, sexual shame, race, and class all figure in this Faulknerian saga.