Alexei Melnick is a betting man. "What do you think about the Jets-Vikings game?" he asks, looking over a point-spread sheet.
The Kailua writer is also betting the reading public will hang with his first novel, "Tweakerville: Life and Death in Hawaii’s Ice World" (Mutual Publishing, $15.95), long enough to get his message: that "ice," or methamphetamine, has become so commonplace in Hawaii that anyone, from the bright kid on the mo-ped to the girl working at the neighborhood drugstore, could be involved in it. The book should be available in stores this week, according to Mutual.
His mystery is set in a seamy, gritty world littered with colorful characters who, depending on one’s point of view, could be either lowlifes or heroes.
"I don’t think these people are bad people at all," Melnick said, citing a passage in which a drug dealer declares his "love" for a customer. "I wouldn’t be ashamed to say I knew any of them."
The politics of illegal drugs has obscured the ingenuity necessary for drug abusers, or "tweakers" (those hooked on meth), to maintain their desperate lifestyles, Melnick said.
"A guy like Robbie (a drug dealer in the novel), he spends his entire day running from police. There’s a lot of strength, there’s a lot of cunning, there’s a lot of intelligence to being even a drug addict who has no home," he said.
Given different chances and different opportunities, many drug abusers are capable of living a clean life, Melnick said.
The book is written mostly in the first person, in a modified pidgin style that challenges readers to allow themselves to become enveloped by the local drug culture. To help readers, Melnick provides a glossary of pidgin and drug-related terms.
He said the writing style took some time to develop and was prompted by a woman’s comment, after a public reading of some of his material, that his characters seemed "foreign" to her. That comment initially angered Melnick but eventually served as an important lesson.
"My next question was, ‘Why is it foreign to you? Why didn’t you go out and learn the culture that you moved to?’" Melnick said. "I had two words I wanted to say to the lady but I didn’t, and I’m glad I didn’t because years later, when I had to make some tough choices about the language, it was her I was thinking of.
"The two words I would say to her now is ‘thank you.’"
Although Melnick writes in the book’s afterword that he knew of three young people who died from drug abuse, he insists "Tweakerville" isn’t "my life story, and it isn’t the life of anybody I know." The Oahu-born and raised writer is private about his personal life, preferring not to discuss the neighborhood he grew up in, where he went to high school or even what his "day job" is.
But details of what appears to have been an adventurous life leak out as he discusses his novel.
Melnick, who just turned 30, said he spent seven years working on "Tweakerville." The bulk of the book stems from a 1,400-page manuscript he wrote while holed up in a hotel in the Philippines.
"I’ve lived a crazy life, man," said the author, speaking at a rambling, rapid-fire pace that could easily be coming from one of his "Tweakerville" characters.
"I ran from some dirty cops in Mexico and ran from some kidnappers in Philippines and wound up staying in my hotel room for the rest of trip," he said. "I ended up writing a lot of the book there in one crack, but the problem was, I wasn’t a writer yet."
The University of Hawaii’s creative-writing program, where he is now studying, helped him refine and develop his draft. He also has had stories published in local literary journals and has won several awards for his fiction writing.
Melnick credits his mother, a teacher who has a doctorate from UH, with turning him on to literature and, particularly, to local writers. He considers the late UH professor Ian MacMillan and local writer Rodney Morales as mentors.
"I see what I’m doing as just a continuation of what has been going on," said Melnick, who thinks he could get another book out of the pages he wrote in the Philippines. "There’s this big wave of Hawaii literature, and hopefully I’ll pass it on to the next generation."