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Review: ‘Roppongi’

Roppongi by Nick Vasey
‘Roppongi’ by Nick Vasey
Roppongi. Even for the uninitiated, the word conjures up images of urban debauchery and degradation. For those lucky enough to call Tokyo, “home sweet home” the resonance is even stronger, perhaps even haunting.

In his book by the same title, Nick Vasey seeks to bottle that flavor and share it with the world. His superhuman proto-protagonist, Zack, takes us on a swashbuckling, guts-and-glory ride through the dark alleys of Roppongi, one of Tokyo’s top pleasure quarters, circa 1998, when sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll were plentiful and proliferating.

Those looking for cultural introspection or historical accuracy should look for another book, perhaps Robert Whiting’s excellent “Tokyo Underworld.” But if you are seeking a big fat line of eye-popping pleasure, “Roppongi,” released last year, will more than satisfy. Although, as is often the case with strong chemicals, you might be getting the urge for another hit before long.

No doubt, “Roppongi” is addictive. It’s the kind of book some of us dreamed of writing in college, but we were too busy living the dream, not unlike Zack. He seems to have the mind, appetite, libido and staying power of a 20-year-old athlete. Every few pages he is inducing copious amounts of drugs and alcohol and then boning the hottest babe on the planet, often all at the same time.

Despite being in a constant state of inebriation, his flag never fails to fly at full mast, seemingly at the bat of an eyelash. It’s all a little hard to swallow, except for his hot babes, who always do, of course.

So you’ll find plenty of eye-rolling passages like this, “The crowd parted as the sea had done for Moses, and they passed into the chill morning air. You could make a worse exit, Zack thought.”

Nonetheless, Vasey keeps the plot moving fast and furious. There’s no time to wonder why, because something naughty and nasty, but nice, is awaiting Zack, just around the corner or on the next page. A philandering flight attendant. A bouncy stripper. A menacing mob boss. And our hero always ends up on top.

He works as a floor manager in a strip bar staffed by foreign dancers, sells drugs for an Iranian middleman, hangs out with beautiful Israeli women, and plays pool with a Japanese gentleman and a yakuza meth head. Eventually, it all comes horribly apart in a rip-roaring finish followed by a heart-warming coda.

Unfortunately, “Roppongi” does suffer from a serious lack of editing. Every thought or concept, no matter how obvious, is flagged, amplified, and repeated, as if Vasey thinks his readers might be too drunk or high to follow the text:

Moet in one hand, lines of coke going up your nose, and a Playboy Centerfold with her mouth around your cock. Decadence, hedonism, excess. The rules do not apply.

One would assume that the first sentence does not need further explanation. Moreover, no one simply says anything in “Roppongi.” They “tease,” “compliment,” “prompt,” “concede,” “shrug unhappily,” or “bark abrasively.” After awhile, one wishes Vasey would trust his dialogue to deliver the punch, instead of explaining every line.

In the last third of the novel the action really gets rolling and Vasey takes us from sex and drugs to violence and hints at the frightening changes that would befall the real Roppongi in the early part of the century.

Perhaps it’s best to think of “Roppongi” as a plate of Buffalo wings. There’s lot skin and batter wrapping a small portion of meat, but it’s spicy, satisfying and goes well with beer. Lots of beer.

For those who have experienced it, especially during the heyday, Roppongi is difficult to put into words. And as Zack says at one point, when he is playfully allowed to look directly at the camera, “Someone should write a book about this.” We can thank Nick Vasey for doing just that.

Tom Boatman is on Twitter @boatzilla.