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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What I'm Reading: Aloft

AloftRecently, I finished listening to Chang-rae Lee's Aloft. Lee, known for his depictions of Korean Americans, has an interesting protagonist here, an Italian-American, retired landscape company owning, Long Islander named Jerry Battle. Jerry is the patriarch of a family that includes his elderly father and his children from his marriage to a Korean woman (now deceased) named Daisy, Jack, who is slowly running the family business into the ground and Theresa, a graduate student about to marry an Asian American writer. Also playing a big role in the family is Jerry's long-time girlfriend, Rita a Puerto Rican nurse.

Jerry is retired from Battle Brothers landscaping and spends his time working part-time at the local travel agency and flying in his private plane. But Jerry is not a model father, husband, or boyfriend. He is not terrible either. Actually, this is the main problem in Jerry's life and the source of all of the problems plaguing his relationships with family and friends. Jerry has always avoided confrontations and hides his true feelings. At 59 he is in danger of drifting away from everyone and everything that has meaning in his life.

And then, tough circumstances bring his daughter and her fiance back East to live at home. And so the catalyst is introduced to this equation and Jerry's life begins to move forward for the first time in years, but not without problems, setbacks, and heartache. Jerry is forced to deal with life and all of its problems head on, but he is also able to reap the rewards of a life fully lived with feet firmly on the ground.

The appeal of this book lies in a few distinct area. First, there is no question that Lee is a fantastic writer. This book moves fluidly along. It has graceful and moving passages, it has times of reflection, it has action scenes, and Lee easily holds it all together in a moving and steadily building story. Just when the plot could drag, Lee introduces enough drama to keep you turning the pages, or in my case, listening to a few more tracks.

This is also a book for people who like a domestic-centered, character driven story. Here our main character is a complex, middle aged man sandwiched between his elderly father and his grown kids. He is having a minor mid-life crisis, but handling everything as it comes at him. Although he has made his share of missteps and his life is not without tragedy, he comes out the other side of the novel on the upswing; which in and of itself is refreshing for serious literary fiction.   The ending is not all happy, I should warn you though, but it is a classic example of bittersweet.

There are also some great secondary characters like Jerry's powerful lawyer friend, the elderly Battle Brothers accountant, Jerry's cranky dad, Jerry's travel agent office mates, and Paul, Theresa's fiance, to name only a few.

Finally, you cannot overlook the appeal of the main theme of Aloft, which is interracial families and the multicultural blending of modern Americans. Jerry is the patriarch of an Italian-Korean-American family with a Puerto Rican girlfriend. Lee has Jerry ponder how he got to be the head of such a blended family and what it all means, if anything at all.

Three Words That Describe This Book: character-driven, compelling, interracial families

Readalikes: Showing its age, the reviews of this 2004 novel mention it as a readalike to the then popular, but now not so much, About Schmidt by Louis Begley.  Begley's novel is worth a look for fans of Aloft who missed About Schmidt the first time around (or vice versa). John Updike's Rabbit novels were also mentioned by reviewers. Although I agree, I kept thinking more of Richard Ford's Bascombe trilogy and the novels of Richard Russo.

Specifically for Russo, I found Aloft very similar to Bridge of Sighs on many different levels. Click here to see what I said about Bridge of Sighs when I read it. I also listened to both novels and am pretty sure that they share the same reader, which may be influencing my suggestion here.

For a book with very similar themes but with younger protagonists, try The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Nonfiction about suburban sprawl (there is a lot about the history of the migration to the LI suburbs here), aviation, and interracial families (use the link to see suggestions of other titles too) could all be of interest to fans of Aloft.

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