The easygoing co-proprietor of a small advertising firm finds himself called into the office of an ultra-wealthy right-wing activist. The activist himself is at death's door, but his right-hand man wants answers regarding a pamphlet produced by the ad man's company. Where, he asks, is that sheep with a brown star on its back that happens to appear, among a crowd of other, more normal sheep, in the cover photo? The ad man has no idea, but the secretary strongarms him into going on a monthlong journey to find the sheep anyway. And if he doesn't make with the ruminant in question, it's curtains for him.
Enlisting his part-time ear model, part-time call girl, part-time translator girlfriend, the ad man travels from Tokyo to Sapporo in search of the wanted sheep. At first it seems hopeless, but the girlfriend's intuition leads them to a shabby hotel that, it turns out, contains the very clues they need. And the ad man's long-lost friend, "The Rat", the one who snapped the photo that sparked the trouble; he's been sending letters. Could he have anything to do with all this?
This was the first Murakami novel to find wide release in the United States, and critics basically made sweet love to it. And if you put that in the context of the times, that's understandable; there was simply nothing like it around, especially not from Japanese authors. The review desks probably expected another tome chock full of kimonos, rice paper walls, tea ceremonies and cherry blossoms, and they got a surrealistic detective story jam-packed with slang, Western cultural artifacts, modern consumer products and a man in a sheep suit. It's like when you expect the taste of water, but get the taste of Sprite: startling, slightly sweeter than expected and in a vague way unpleasant, but kind of pleasantly unpleasant, if you get me.
That said, this isn't my favorite Murakami, which puts me in the awkward position of parting with critical consensus. That's not to say that it's bad — I've yet to encounter a bad Murakami novel — but it doesn't deliver quite the same brand of captivating page-turnery to be found in later titles. The thing is, I would call it essential; you wouldn't want to read its superior (in my humble opinion) sequel Dance Dance Dance without having read this one, and it's also a reasonably revealing portrait of the artist as a young man. But I can't endorse it as a fully functioning self-contained novel, not just because it's essentially the prologue to its sequel but because it's actually part three of the "Rat" trilogy, which comprises Murakami's first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, his second, the nigh-unavailable-in-English Pinball '73, and, finally, A Wild Sheep Chase. So there's an arriving-late-to-the-party feeling to the experience that I couldn't shake.
But I'm making the book sound bad, which it isn't; it's better than most novels I read, but at this point I've come to hold Murakami to a higher standard. Though something of a mess compared to Murakami's more recent work, A Wild Sheep Chase nonetheless contains undeniable nuggets of phrasing brilliance, such as (a) "the elevators shook like a large dog with lung disease" and (b) "occasionally, someone coughed with a dry rasp that sounded like a mummy tapped on the head with a pair of tongs." Read lines like that and you know you're in good authorial — or at least translatorial — hands.