Aloft, Chang-rae Lee, Riverhead Books, 2004, 343 pp
Lee's third novel was the one which brought him to my attention. It was widely reviewed with mixed reactions and I put it on my TBR list for 2004.
The story is once again set in the suburbs of New York City, but the Korean/American character is in the background this time. It is a family saga about Italians and their landscaping business created by its patriarch, a crusty old guy who lives in assisted living at the time of the novel.
Jerry Battle, the main character, took over the business from his father after the other son was killed in Vietnam. Jerry retired and turned things over to his son who, in an attempt at expansion, has over-extended the company and is running it into the ground. Jerry has issues similar to Lee's previous main characters, revolving around an inability to connect with people and symbolized by his hobby. He owns a small plane and likes to fly over Long Island, feeling the detachment of being above it all.
Jerry's wife was a Korean who eventually went insane back in the days when their family doctor knew little about treating mental illness. Her tragic death, witnessed by their two small children, left deep wounds in them all, but Jerry never confronted any of it. In the novel, it all comes to a head and he has to find a way to deal with several damaged family members.
Right from the beginning, I became engrossed in the story and the characters. Jerry Battle is a complex fellow with a rather twisted sense of humor. He reminded me of friends I had in Michigan who worked with their hands doing small construction and roofing jobs. I had an uncle who worked for Ford Motor Company in Detroit who also falls into this category of men who work physically hard all day and have barely enough energy left for their families despite being, deep down, soft-hearted and fairly faithful husbands.
I wouldn't have expected this author to write such an American story and demonstrate this depth of perception into American suburban life. Perhaps the critics were surprised as I was by this big leap of difference from his two earlier novels. The ability to entertain evidenced in Native Speaker is in fully realized form here. The characters and their actions belie the touchy-feely approach to family that supposedly characterized late 20th century American life, which I found refreshing and thought provoking and probably quite true.
(Aloft is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)