Into Books Review: Fish Town by John Gerard Fagan

Book: Fish Town
Author: John Gerard Fagan
Publisher: Guts Publishing 2021

Only the truly lost wash up on the shores of Yaizu
a fish town in a forgotten part of Japan

fish town

In 2013, twenty-nine year old Masters Creative Writing graduate John Gerard Fagan from Muirhead, near Glasgow, was living in the midst of a recession, had floated in and out of jobs, was in a dead-end relationship and had given up all hope of ever achieving his life dreams in Scotland.  He took a chance and accepted the offer of a teaching job in Japan when it looked like he had nothing to lose and he thought he was heading for the bright lights of Tokyo:

fuck it
nothing to lose
literally nothing to lose but the last strings of my sanity
which would have been lost
had I stayed in Scotland
I decided on Japan …

and headed 5,783 miles away

the old dreams will sleep

Fish Town is Fagan’s compelling debut memoir of short, sharp, narrative poems about his life in a remote and rundown town in Japan from 2013-19.  The cover and title themselves drew me to this little gem; Fagan’s own black and white painting of a wee guppy on an old record sleeve conjured up memories of Glasgow’s Coats of Arms and Japanese water-colours of fishermen in mountainous surroundings, combining two of my greatest interests – Scottish writing and Far Eastern culture. I was immediately hooked.

Fish Town is as unconventional and at times uncomfortable as you might expect from Guts Publishing, an independent London publisher, established in May 2019.  As the name suggests, these guys are keen to shake things up in the literary world and to publish the ‘freaks and misfits’ and ‘balsy books about life’ (their words). Previous titles include, recovering addict and trauma survivor, Aidan Martin’s debut memoir, Euphoric Recall (2020), and their trio of anthologies, concerning the exact subject matter that their titles indicate, Sending Nudes (2021), Cyber Smut (2020) and Stories About Penises (2019).

Fish Town fits the niche perfectly as Fagan’s book deals with themes such as alcoholism, racism, misogyny, sex and mental health issues.  His decision to travel is based on a last chance grasp at happiness, achievement, adventure, and something different, whatever that might mean:

The stench from the fish factory grounded me into the fabric of that wee town
hardly an upgrade
but it was different
and I needed different

to feel something

Fagan takes us on a realistic journey of what it was like living so far from everything that was familiar.  Although focusing on a man’s eye view, this is ultimately a deeply human study of what it is like to feel different every day of your life.  Written as a collection of free-verse poems, in pithy language, pitted with Glaswegian vernacular – the weans feature frequently – the form itself drives home Fagan’s struggles with alienation, his sense of belonging and his alternative approach to writing a remembrance.

His six years in Japan begin like a trip on a speeding bullet train, staying in a room in Osaka resembling a space capsule, before slowing down and heading to his remote destination where he encounters a micro power player who won’t let go of his petty prejudices:

I was fucked even before I got there
Manko wanted an American to join their staff

born in the USA   

Fagan’s rhythmic metre combines with imagery of such quality that you are transported into lone apartments, low-tech schools, 24/7 shops, sleazy bars, teppie football matches – aye fitbae in Japan – band gigs and his own and others’ mixed-up, complicated and at times tormented minds: 

foreign wounds don’t heal in a place like Japan
they only get worse, fester, and bleed out

wounds

Fagan dispels myths of Japanese technological supremacy when teaching out in the sticks in schools with fax machines and squat toilets.  He equally destroys any sense of strict Buddhist morality when faced with the seedy side of Japanese life in quirky metaphors:

a fucking porn shop between two schools?
fish town was full of shitty surprises

dvd  

The chronic home-sickness that Fagan suffers is exacerbated by visits from his family as demonstrated in five more times when he muses on the consequences of how many more times he will see his parents if he remains:

Five more times
It wasn’t enough

five more times

His sense of being different is often reinforced by Japanese colleagues, particularly in the school where fellow teachers make him ‘‘communicate’ with the weans’ at playtime, while they gawk at him from staffroom windows, like a bizarre scene from Gregory’s Girl:

I found out that I was more of a pet than seen as an equal to the other teachers
throw it out and let the weans play with it

monkey time  

Fagan’s Japan is a contrast of natural beauty, superficial politeness, humorous incidents and controlled restraint mixed with an underworld of racial prejudice, public sexual abuse, lechery, twisted morality, corruption, porn and petty jealousies.  In time, he descends into a downward spiral of alcoholism, physical deterioration and painful hangovers.  He encounters several friendships and relationships, both deep and shallow, until finally falling in love with Kiki, a Japanese girl – and her beloved wee cat, Su-chan. This period brings temporary hope, despite being fraught with cultural conflicts and concerns for the future and any children, who would be referred to as hafu:

the thought of having a mixed family in Japan was not appealing.

weans

Fagan’s poetry has real strokes of linguistic beauty, as in Hokkaido where he describes this island in the north of Japan in almost haiku like simplicity.  The poem has a cinematic quality about it, reminding me of scenes from Takeshi Fukunaga’s artful film, Ainu Mosir:

rented a car and drove through thick snow
beautiful place
hushed silence …

we went skating on a frozen river …

we visited a temple on new year’s day …

the snow forever falling      
I could have lived there

But the final lines of this poignant poem also reveal his longing for home:

made me realise I was getting sick of the big city
of constantly being around thousands of people
it also made me homesick for Scotland

Hokkaido

Whether you have weathered such displacement yourself or not, the themes addressed in this memoir are universal and you will delight in this truly honest recording of diverse emotional experiences.  In conclusion, perhaps nothing demonstrates the enigma of Fagan’s Japan more than Nippon, where words like racism, disregard, disrespect and ruthlessness, are combined with respect, manners and a few colloquial phrases added for good measure:

the people are some of the kindest you could ever meet
friendliest
most hospitable
a strange place
nowhere like it in the world

Nippon

Fish Town can be purchased HERE.

L M Mulholland
@LorettaMulholl1

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