- - Tuesday, December 4, 2018


By Hideo Yokoyama

Translated from the Japanese by Louise Heal Kawai

MCD Books, $28, 368 pages

On Aug. 12, 1985, Japan Airlines Flight 123 crashed on Mount Osutaka. With 520 dead, it remains the deadliest single-airplane disaster in human history. But even globally significant accidents have a local side: Every crash happens somewhere, and this crash happened in Gunma Prefecture, Japan.

The newly translated novel “Seventeen” by Hideo Yokoyama tells the story of Kazumasa Yuuki, a recreational mountain climber and journalist at the North Kanto Times in Gunma Prefecture. When the JAL disaster happens in the NKT’s backyard, Yuuki is put in charge of the newspaper’s coverage of the accident.

Right from the start, Yuuki struggles with the role of a regional paper. The disaster is called an “inherited accident” by some colleagues, meaning that it’s something outside the paper’s true purview. And yet, is it not the newspaper’s job to provide the best information possible to grieving families, and to the world?

Yuuki also struggles with his new position of authority. He initially hopes the crash has happened just on the border of a neighboring prefecture. He feels he does not have the disposition for leadership roles and fears the damage he may do with his new responsibilities. His family history, fear and guilt guide his editorial decisions, and he is hyper-aware of these inner demons, as well as how his decisions affect his colleagues.

Yuuki is also faced with disasters of personal significance involving his friends, family and career. His mountain climber friend falls into a persistent vegetative state, leaving behind a wife and son. His own son appears to hate him. In the wake of the crash, Yuuki finds himself reaching out and making connections he had previously avoided. It is as though he is climbing a mountain within himself, and something as small as a sentence is as large as a boulder blocking his way.

All the while, Yuuki yearns to fulfill his duty as a journalist and rise to the occasion, employing all his cleverness and experience to get the best information about the crash into print. To him, it is a moral obligation. Even when he doubts his own adequacy, he believes in the importance of his job and his paper, local though it is. This, perhaps more than anything, gives the reader a reason to care about mysterious, quick-tempered and occasionally abusive Yuuki.

“Seventeen” was marketed as a thriller upon its release in English, but readers expecting a traditional thriller will be disappointed. This is not the story of a disaster, but of a newspaper and a man. Yuuki never sees the wreckage of the crash except through the words and photographs of other reporters. Mr. Yokoyama was himself a journalist who covered this same crash, and his depiction of newsroom politics is perfect. From coworkers with nicknames said barely behind backs, to the kind of ego battles encoded in long-term relationships that only an insider can parse, Mr. Yokoyama makes the NKT into a living newspaper.

These details are often specifically Japanese, such as complaints about the number of strokes in a Japanese character, or honor-specific demands for formal apologies. But they are also entirely global and very relevant to journalism today: Yuuki becomes embroiled in an argument over what is more important to the newspaper, the advertising or the articles. And often, the stakes of publishing an article or removing an advertisement rise above the massive loss of life resulting from the crash. This book is a great reminder: The media is made of people, and all journalistic truth is filtered through systems like these.

Overall, “Seventeen” suffers from a certain dryness that will be off-putting to many readers. Thrillers are often carried by the action and mystery in the plot. “Seventeen” feels, at times, like the much-loathed thriller with no thrills. Character motivations often seem mysterious, perhaps because they are stated so directly. At times, being wrapped up in the office politics of the NKT is as exhausting as listening to a friend whine about the intricacies of her job, and the same details of a Japanese newsroom that draw some readers in will seem like so much inside baseball to many others.

Originally titled “Climber’s High” when released in Japan, “Seventeen” is also the story of a literal climb. On the day of the crash, Yuuki had planned to go climbing with a coworker. Seventeen years later, he embarks on the climb with his coworker’s son. Climber’s high is a kind of adrenaline rush that blinds mountain climbers to danger as they race up a mountain, which can be deadly if it wears off too soon and fear returns. Readers should embrace “Seventeen” in a similar frenzy: The peak of the novel is a lovely examination of what it means for something to be important both locally and globally. But there are a lot of pages, many of them very boring, between the start of the book and that payoff. In the end, though, for those willing to endure the journey, the summit is worth the climb.

• Tara Wilson Redd is the author of “The Museum of Us” (Wendy Lamb Books, 2018).

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