BOOK REVIEW : 'Salaryman': Perceptive First Novel Offers an Exhilarating View : SALARYMAN by Meg Pei ; Viking $21; 296 pages


Many first novels are the equivalent of working a passage; dues paid variously to childhood, books read, a graduate writing program and the going literary fashions--in hopes of arriving at a voice of one's own. A few are like opening the eyes for the first time, seeing things new and trying to figure out names to give them.

"Salaryman" belongs to that second kind. Meg Pei, who, according to her publisher, comes from an Italian-American family, has chosen to open her eyes in the fictional person of a driven young Japanese executive--the "Salaryman" of the title--who breaks from his transplanted corporate culture and loses and finds himself in the United States. Hers is a leap of imagination, and while leaps are not the smoothest of gaits, they can offer an exhilarating view.

Jun is the son of Shimada, a flamboyant poet who commits suicide in the company of a 15-year-old mistress, and of Shimada's long-abandoned wife, who runs a modest snack shop. The boy has good looks and a certain inherited cachet, but security is all he can think of.

After university, he gets a coveted job as a junior executive in the Yamamoto electronics conglomerate. He catches the eye of old Yamamoto--a feudal lord--and when the company moves into the United States market, he goes along as Yamamoto's assistant.

He is not a protege, he reflects bitterly of his 16-hour days at Yamamoto's personal command; he is a pet. An equerry, in other words, with lots of personal contact but no independence and--because he lacks interested corporate intrigue and alliance-building--no power.

His wife, Taeko, whom he married when she was an art student, is miserably incompetent in the patient Griselda role of a salaryman's corporate wife. She barely drags through her day in a Long Island suburb, huddles by the basement water heater, refuses corporate socializing, has an affair with her doctor and flees to Japan.

Jun, transferred to Chicago, soon goes into his own decline. He has an affair with an Italian-American waitress at the Drake Hotel, begins drinking heavily and sloughs off on the job despite the paternal admonitions of Yamamoto. After a breakdown, he will quit the team of dark-suited strivers and begin to build his own life as a translator and apprentice chef. It is a kind of dual bridge to his parents. Taeko, who has gone back to painting, will return from Japan, strengthened; reconciliation is in the air.

There is a good deal of neatness in the plot; a first novelist's need to tidy up for her characters. But it is their disarray we prize and the author's fresh way with a sentence and, above all, her ability to make her Japanese--Jun, Taeko, Yamamoto and others--so natural and recognizable and at the same time so different from any American. The author succeeds in giving a strange familiarity to her Japanese in somewhat the same way, though reversed, as Kazuo Ishiguro did with the English in "The End of the Day."

Pei's details are small jolts of energy. In the lobby of the Drake Hotel, a wedding party goes by; a small boy in a miniature tuxedo trails behind, muttering: "I hate my shoes. I hate my shoes. I hate both of them."

At tea in the lounge, Yamamoto orders more sandwiches. "The words drifted cautiously from his throat, like smoke rings, perfectly formed, as opposed to his Japanese which shot from the stomach, each word a small shout." To be with this man--kind, cold and minutely demanding--was "like living with a needle in your arm." His wife, a former actress and still a flawless beauty, wears a large diamond that "bleached her flesh . . . and made it look dead."

There are perceptive views of the customs and stresses of Japanese corporate life, where the boss is far more intimate with his employees than American bosses are yet operates in a far stricter hierarchy.

Most of all, Pei succeeds in summoning up a kind of wild extremity. The scenes with Jun and Gina, his lover, are coolness masking erotic fierceness. When she leaves for Italy and comes to say goodby, the same coolness masks tenderness.

Jun, drunk, wandering through Chicago and New York, cut off from the corporate guild that sustained him though he never really fitted it, sleeping in his empty Long Island house after Taeko has left, eating an Oreo cookie from his daughter's abandoned lunch box: These things are written so that they are recognizable yet dissonant, a Western melody stretched and bent upon a pentatonic scale.

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