The Apprentice

An unfulfilled romance

By Mark Schreiber

A version of this review appeared in
"When notoriety helps sell books" in
The Japan Times, The Asian Bookshelf, 22 January 2006


Lewis Libby
The Apprentice
New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2005 (1996)
265 pages, paperback

First published in 1996, The Apprentice was re-issued last year after its author, the former chief of staff to U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, made news headlines when he was indicted for fudging on testimony to a Washington grand jury probing the outing of a female CIA agent. But anyone who reads this novel in the hope of obtaining insights into the mind-set of neoconservative Republicans is likely to be disappointed.

Somewhere along the Sea of Japan

The story, set at an isolated inn somewhere along the Sea of Japan coast in 1903, features an apprentice at the inn -- referred to in the first several chapters only as "the youth" -- as the main protagonist. Eventually the youth, whose name is Setsuo, is drawn into an inexplicable murder that takes place during a blizzard. He becomes complicit by removing money from the victim; but the story fails to explain who the victim was or why he was killed.

In the sub-plot, Setsuo plays a Charlie Brown unable to convey his romantic feelings to a little red-haired girl, in this case a young woman named Yukiko who belongs to a grotesque troupe of traveling performers. The two exchange longing glances over much of the book, but their adolescent urgings remain unfulfilled.

A few days, a few hundred yards

Except for the epilogue, the story takes place over a span of two or three days and is confined to a radius of perhaps a few hundred meters -- making it impossible to glean to what extent "Scooter" Libby researched Japan. The killings were done with bows and arrows and swords, which I suppose would have still been possible in 1903, although criminals at the time would have had access to firearms.

Libby may have been influenced by Kobo Abe (1924-1993), whose Kafkaesque works, such as Woman in the Dunes, also feature moody characters in bizarre predicaments. While the book's descriptive passages draw the reader into the narrative, the plot is too incoherent, characterizations much too diluted and the sexual imagery -- Republican neocon affiliation aside -- is not so much erotic as simply weird.