Subtitled A Ghost Story, M. Thomas Gammarino's Big in Japan is just the kind of debut novel that shouldn't work. It's about a group of young men in a struggling rock-and-roll band (sigh) who travel to Japan, where they are famous (yawn), to play shows, drink and drug it up, and have sex with lots of Japanese women (snore). But just about every time you expect something clichéd to happen, Gammarino pushes the story down a dark alley you didn't notice a moment before.
Japan centers on Brain, a guitarist and songwriter for the band Agenbite (named after a throwaway quote from Ulysses). Brain, a 24-year-old virgin who lives with his mom and dad, is obviously the protagonist, but within a few pages, you begin to understand that he's not entirely the tiresome shy hipster doofus you've read about in a half-dozen other books last year. He's unhinged in the Taxi Driver way, becoming obsessed with a prostitute named Miho and causing an accident that nearly shreds her uterus to pieces. Things get worse from there.
Gammarino uses Brain's obsession with Miho to represent the way East and West have interacted over centuries of tense contact—a character even lets loose with a concise, and biting, History of the White Man in Japan near the end of the book—but Japan is more than a commentary on the weighted transactions between two cultures. Brain is a man who cannot navigate the muddy waters of relationships. He abandons Agenbite when their Japanese tour doesn't work out, but when the other band members find the kind of fame they always dreamed of, Brain is consumed with a jealousy that infects his entire consciousness with poison.
Gammarino shows real promise as an author who can crack open the head of a warped individual and show us the rot inside. While a great many authors used to be skilled at this—Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes is perhaps the greatest book along those lines, but Harry Crews wrote three or four minor masterpieces in this subgenre during the 1970s alone—this unsettled type of narrator (nastier than misanthropic, but deluded enough to believe in his own purity) has disappeared in recent years. Perhaps authors just aren't willing to risk sacrificing commercial success for the sake of artistic daring.
Gammarino's ability to tread where other, more salable, authors are unwilling really pays off; Japan sticks with you. As Brain's already tenuous grip on reality weakens, Japan's narrative starts to fall apart, too; we see the world through his eyes, and it's not a pretty place. Agenbite becomes the most important rock band in history and Japan transforms from a country to a problem to solve. The ghost in the title is Brain himself; he's haunting the world with his brutally broken mind.