It was the germ of a good idea. At the end of Puccini's opera MADAMA BUTTERFLY (or the David Belasco play on which it was based), US Naval Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton returns to Nagasaki with his new wife Kate to reclaim the son he had fathered there some years before in his "marriage" to a geisha known as Butterfly. She kills herself just as the cute blonde kid that his mother had named "Trouble" runs to his father's arms. What happens to the boy after that?
Australian author David Rain has the former lieutenant become a US senator, at one time an apparent shoo-in for President, and a major power behind the throne throughout his career. For Kate Pinkerton is more than the elegant lady who appears beautifully tailored at the end of the opera, but the daughter of significant political family who help her shape her husband's career thereafter. And Trouble? Small of stature but charismatically handsome, he is portrayed as the epitome of his nickname, with an unerring nose for trouble, the boldness to cause it, but also the tragic tendency to become his victim. It is a long time before BF Pinkerton II discovers his true parentage, although his dreams are haunted by distant memories of a devoted Asian face.
There is no need to know the opera to enjoy the book, and very little here that opera-lovers will enjoy that others may miss, other than a few arch references to well-known arias. Rain provides an excellent synopsis of the story halfway through as an entr'acte, before he introduces other characters from the opera into his later episodes. But one borrowing is entirely original. As a Nick Carraway to his Gatsby, Rain provides Trouble with a friend of his own age, Woodley Sharpless, the imagined son of the American Consul at Nagasaki who played a role in the opera as Pinkerton's enabler and unheeded advisor. The two sons are seen in a similar relationship in the book, with Sharpless running into Trouble at crisis moments, aiding him to a certain extent but ultimately unable to save him from the consequences of his folly. Meanwhile, Sharpless has developed his own career as a journalist and biographer; this is his book that we are reading.
There are four major time-periods in the novel, structured theatrically as four acts. Sharpless and Trouble meet at Blaze, an exclusive New England prep school. They then run into one another in bohemian Greenwich Village in the twenties, in Nagasaki again in the late thirties (the period of the Second Sino-Japanese War), and finally at Los Alamos just before the Trinity atomic test. The first two acts are largely generic; the school story could almost involve any two boys who do not merge easily with the crowd, though the writing is by no means bad. But as the novel proceeds, it begins to appear that Rain has a larger purpose, to use the theme as a critique of American imperialism and in particular the relationship between the United States and Japan, right through Hiroshima and (yes) Nagasaki. Unfortunately, as Rain's theme grows more serious, his plotting deteriorates, becoming increasingly implausible. By the time Kate Pinkerton had emerged as the Angela Lansbury character in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, I had pretty much had it. Taking an opera for inspiration does not license a descent into foolish melodrama. [2.5 stars]