First, a few words on what this book is not: It’s not a memoir, it’s not a compilation of generalizations about the Korean immigrant experience, and it’s not self-selling (self-serving?), Author’s Note protestations to the contrary. What it is, really, is a collection of eminently readable essays, most of which could stand on their own, on a year in the life of a young man juggling three lives: a part-time editorship at the Paris Review, a full-time job at a Brooklyn convenience store, and a developing relationship within a multi-cultural and multi-generational family. With generous doses of self-deprecating humor, wry similes and metaphors, colorful anecdotes, and penetrating but empathic insights into an array of distinctive characters, including the author himself (“Inwardness can be a good thing, until it becomes involuted and can’t turn itself around”–p. 252), it’s a salutary reminder to this reader of fiction of the pleasures of reading New Yorker-caliber nonfiction.
The title of the book is borne out in the narrative. The decision to purchase the deli was made by the author and his wife in consultation with his mother-in-law, for whom running her own business was tantamount to a reward for her previous career of child-rearing after making a successful transition to life in the U.S. The author could have been a bystander, could have written an outside-looking-in narrative, but chose to invest personally in the operation of the deli, affording him a more immediate perspective on the daily routines, the interpersonal relationships, and the sociological and economic aspects of deli ownership in a metropolitan area known for the profusion and variety of its delis.
Some of the highlights: the sections on George Plimpton, legendary editor of the Paris Review and the ultimate amateur, who strongly encourages Howe in his entrepreneurial expedition, and on the estimable journal itself; the descriptions of Dwayne, the deli’s winsomely enigmatic right-hand man who from a packing-crate throne in the storeroom anchors the deli to the surrounding neighborhood; the portrayal of Kay, the mother-in-law, a fountain of good cheer and mercantile energy whom only a heart attack can lay low; a summary of 50 years of South Korean economic development, rendered with a sociologist’s eye; observations (“manners maketh all”) on the Puritan tradition from which the author comes, and especially the occasionally baffling juxtaposition of its liberal and conservative elements; the account of the 2005 power blackout in the Northeast (a “Where were you on the day…?” occasion).
Good literary nonfiction is informed by incisive generalizations supported by apt detail, and in “My Korean Deli” we get not one but two case examples—the operation of a neighborhood convenience store governed by the arcane network of rules and regulations amassed over the decades by the New York City administration, and the publication of a literary journal by seat-of-the-pants methods in the editor-in-chief’s townhouse. With the deli we learn about the redoubtable lottery machine, the tactics of “Willy Loman” and other sales representatives, and the draconian punishments awaiting those caught selling tobacco to minors. Upstairs from the Paris Review editorial office we share drinks with pajama-clad Plimpton and author Howe (with a rack of pool and a visit to the nearby Playboy Mansion yet to come?). On the Massachusetts Turnpike we careen madly in the author’s rust-bucket auto toward Boston for a reading from a Paris Review-sponsored anthology (excellent cameos of the two writers who read). The generalizations? “Everyone should work at a checkout counter at least part of his life.”
My only regret was not learning more about Gab, the author’s good wife, who has put career (law) and family (that of her and Howe, as yet childless) on hold while making it possible for Kay to indulge in her long-standing entrepreneurial ambitions. I look forward to reading more of Gab’s story in Howe’s next book.