For everyone there are occupations it’s impossible to imagine doing with even the slightest bit of success. A talented orchestral musician might struggle as a militaryfighter pilot; a gifted lawyer might find managing a fleet of long-haultruckers overwhelming. This is very fertile ground for storytelling, of course.One can lampoon both the employee and the employer, in turn presentingstereotypes, blowing them to bits, and then having the protagonist turn aroundto find the same stereotypes come to life. An especially clever writer can buryall sorts of subtexts in the narrative, wringing meaning and laughs out ofsituations limited only by his imagination and his taste for absurdity.
It’s a whole other matter to find oneself living itinstead of inventing it, and to then uncover the subtexts and laughs that mayhave been hard to identify during each doubt-filled workday. It’s hard to findthe deep meaning of an experience when your comfort zone is out of reach. Thatmakes My Korean Deli something of a marvel,because what Ben Ryder Howe has done is to take his own unique experience—oneon par with any fish-out-of-water tale—and present it in a way that preservesthat uniqueness without straining credulity.
This is no small thing, as Howe’s story has all ofthe requisite components of a fictional concoction. At no point does anythingcompletely out of the realm of probability happen, though; rather, it’s the waythe pieces of the story come together, neatly fitting together in ways thatallow the subtext to take care of itself. Howe—a senior editor at the time for The Paris Review—and his wife decidetogether to break open their nest egg and purchase a Korean deli for hismother-in-law, Kay. Howe is drafted into taking shifts at the store and findshimself a fish very much out of water, dealing with financial complicationswell beyond his grasp, labyrinthine city codes that seem to damn you if youfollow them and damn you if you don’t, violent-but-good-hearted (or are they?)employees who stayed on when ownership changed hands.
And so on. “Concoction” is an apt word touse for My Korean Deli—the book islight and airy in its treatment of matters that a lesser writer might haveapproached with a heavy hand. Howe doesn’t shy away from thorny issues ofcultural differences—the double challenge of working out of your element forsomebody with an entirely different approach to labor while simultaneouslyworking for your mother-in-law gets an ample share of ink. Howe never lets histhoughtful ruminating slow the story down, but neither does he take the easyway out by making a joke of it (though he does refer to his mother-in-law as”the Mike Tyson of Korean grandmothers” in one of his more charitablemoments).
There are life lessons aplenty here, to be certain,and Howe makes a point of putting the “life” before the “lesson.”That helps make the overall work enjoyable in a way a work of fiction couldn’tas easily achieve. If it’s a cliché to call this a heartwarming tale ofredemption, that cliché exists on the strength of books like this one.
Matthew Tiffany is a mental health therapist whose writing has appeared in numerous publications. He blogs occasionally at http://condalmo.wordpress.com.