Thursday, September 22, 2011
Book Review: My Korean Deli by Ben Ryder Howe (2011)
Sometimes, the Korean forgets how strange he could appear in America.
My Korean Deli is a delightful story. Howe, an editor (at the time of the memoir) of the esteemed literary magazine The Paris Review, buys a convenience store in Brooklyn with his Korean American wife Gab. The memoir chronicles the many adventures of Howe in the course of running the deli as a (self-described) hilariously unqualified white-collar WASP. It is a nice setup that features two main personalities. On the side of Howe's life that involves esoteric mental work, there is Howe's boss George Plimpton -- a wealthy overgrown frat boy with his head in the clouds, cavorting in fabulous parties and supporting the arts. On the side that involves gritty manual labor, there is Howe's mother-in-law Kay -- no-nonsense immigrant with impossibly thick skin, working until she has a heart attack and coming back to work just a few weeks later.
Howe is a great story teller. If he could speak like he could write, you would love having a beer with him. His prose is smooth, at times maybe a little glib. With his deadpan and self-effacing sense of humor, the book frequently reduced the Korean to a collapsed pile of laughing rubble. Howe's eyes are keen for details, and are firmly fixated on people around him rather than himself. He selectively deploys humorous exaggerations that, if taken out of context, might be a wee bit offensive. (A reader of this blog emailed about how she was annoyed by Howe's description of kimchi -- how it "gives the breath that can kill mice in the walls".) The portrait of Kay -- tiny Korean grandmother taking a drag of smoke while wearing a sleeveless shirt that says "Costa Rica!" -- is not necessarily flattering.
But intents are what offends, not words. Howe does not offend because he clearly approaches his subjects with love and warmth. He goes through great lengths to describe just how out of his elements he was, and just how strange people around him seemed. In fact, if I took anything away from My Korean Deli, it was that despite well-meaning people's best efforts, Korean Americans (along with a lot of other New Yorkers) can appear really strange and incomprehensible. Howe handles this quite admirably; he is honest about his frustrations, but at no point does a reader feel that he lets his frustrations slip into a cold blooded hatred. When bad things happen to Kay or Dwayne -- a large, foul-mouthed and big-hearted black man who works at the deli -- one would get choked up along with Howe.
The appeal of My Korean Deli for Korean American readers, however, goes beyond its discussion of Korean Americana. Despite Howe's profuse description of the difference between him and Korean Americans around him, Howe is actually not that different from Korean Americans of his generation: generally in white-collar profession, little experience in the gritty parts of life, and unable to truly understand Korean Americans of our parents' generation even as we love them dearly. (After all, that is probably why Howe married his wife.) Often, the Korean found himself to be more affected by Howe's account of his life at the Paris Review -- as much as Howe has a vague sense that his work as a literary editor is somewhat BS, the Korean also has a vague sense that his work as a corporate lawyer is somewhat BS.
All in all, My Korean Deli is a fun read. The Korean recommends it.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.