A Gesture Lifeby Chang-rae Lee
Chang-Rae Lee won the 1995 Discover Award for his masterful first novel, Native Speaker. The book world has patiently waited for Mr. Lee's second novel, and with the release of A Gesture Life it is apparent that the wait was more than worthwhile. See more details below
Chang-Rae Lee won the 1995 Discover Award for his masterful first novel, Native Speaker. The book world has patiently waited for Mr. Lee's second novel, and with the release of A Gesture Life it is apparent that the wait was more than worthwhile.
Lee, the prize-winning author of "Native Speaker," guides us across this complicated terrain without a false step. By rights, "Life" should be depressing. But the writing is sure and convincing vivid and the war story unforgettable. By the end of this masterly novel, all we are is exhilarated.
Franklin Hata, the narrator of Chang-rae Lee's second novel, was born in Korea and grew up in Japan; now he owns a house in Bedley Run, N.Y., a town that lies about a 50-minute drive north of Manhattan. The house is a roomy Tudor revival - it may not be the grandest house in town, but it's among the area's "special properties" - and Doc Hata, as he is widely known, is befriended by a local real estate agent, who is sure she can get him a great price for it. But Doc is not quite ready to sell: although he's in his 70's, he still has few laps to swim in his nice pool and more than a little harmonizing to do in his American life.
The accretion of wisdom in Lee's novel is stunning. He expertly evokes the collision of unacceptable truth with the illusion of workaday serenity. In "Native Speaker" Lee displayed an admirable, lyrical restraint in the face of emotional subject: the difficult and sometimes perilous process of becoming an American, and staying one, with the losses and gains that such a battle for identity entails. A Gesture Life is even beautiful, solitary, remarkably tender book that reveals the shadows that fall constantly from the past, the ones that move darkly on the lawns of the here and now.
Talk Magazine's 10 Best Books of 1999
Lee's spare, careful and strangely poetic style suits the guarded speech of his genteel narrator, whether he is imparting rationalizations or elevations about his life. Lee achieves a measure skill in conveying the horror of wartime flashback scene, which reverberate throughout the rest of this finely crafted novel.
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PEOPLE KNOW ME HERE. It wasn't always so. But living thirty-odd years in the same place begins to show on a man. In the course of such time, without even realizing it, one takes on the characteristics of the locality, the color and stamp of the prevailing dress and gait and even speechthose gentle bells of the sidewalk passersby, their How are yous and Good days and Hellos. And in kind there is a gradual and accruing recognition of one's face, of being, as far as anyone can recall, from around here. There's no longer a lingering or vacant stare, and you can taste the small but unequaled pleasure that comes with being a familiar sight to the eyes. In my case, everyone here knows perfectly who I am. It's a simple determination. Whenever I step into a shop in the main part of the village, invariably someone will say, "Hey, it's good Doc Hata."
The sentiment, certainly, is very kind, and one I deeply appreciate. Here, fifty minutes north of the city, in a picturesque town that I will call Bedley Run, I somehow enjoy an almost Oriental veneration as an elder. I suppose the other older folks who live here receive their due share of generosity and respect, but it seems I alone rate the blustery greeting, the special salutation. When I buy my paper each morning, the newsstand owner will say, with a tone feigning gravity, "Doctor Hata, I presume." And the young, bushy-eyebrowed woman at the deli, whose homebound mother I helped quite often in her final years, always reaches over the refrigerated glass counter and waves her plump hands and says, "Gonna have the usual, Doc?" Shewinks at me and makes sure to prepare my turkey breast sandwich herself, folding an extra wedge of pickle into the butcher paper. I realize that it's not just that I'm a friendly and outgoing silver-hair, and that I genuinely enjoy meeting people, but also because I've lived here as long as any, and my name, after all, is Japanese, a fact that seems both odd and delightful to people, as well as somehow town-affirming.
In my first years in Bedley Run, things were a bit different. Even the town had another name, Bedleyville (this my attribution), which was changed sometime in the early 1970s because the town board decided it wasn't affluent-sounding enough. The town in fact wasn't affluent at the time, being just a shabby tan brick train station and the few stores that served it, some older village homes, several new housing developments, and the surrounding dairy cow pastures and wooded meadows, nothing fancy at all, which was how I was able to afford to move here and open a business. There were perhaps a few thousand residents, mostly shopkeepers and service people, and the small bedroom community who were their patronage.
I'd read about the town in the paper, a brief slice-of-life article with a picture of a meadow that had been completely cleared for new suburban-style homes, just white stakes in the frozen ground to mark where the streets would be. It looked sterile and desolate, like fresh blast ground, not in the least hopeful, and yet I felt strangely drawn to the town, in part because of the peaceful pace of life that the article noted, the simple tranquillity of the older, village section that made me think of the small city where I lived my youth, on the southwestern coast of Japan. I had already driven through the more established suburbs nearer to the city and found them distinctly cold, as well as too expensive. I'd ask for directions at a garage, or buy some gum at a candy store, and an awkward quiet would arise, that certain clippedness, and though I never heard any comments, I could tell I wasn't being welcomed to remain too long.
When I first arrived in Bedleyville, few people seemed to notice me. Not that they were much different from those in the other towns, at least not intrinsically. Fundamentally, it seems to me, the people in a particular area are given to a common set of conditions and influences, like the growth in a part of a forest. There may be many types of flora, but only the resident soil and climate provide for them, either richly or poorly or with indifference. I suppose it was because Bedleyville was still Bedleyville then, and not yet Bedley Run (though desperately wanting to be), and pretty much anybody new to town was seen as a positive addition to the census and tax base. It was 1963, and from what I'd seen during my brief travels in this country, everyone for the most part lived together, except, I suppose, for certain groups, such as the blacks, or the Chinese in the cities, who for one reason or another seemed to live apart. Still, I had assumed that once I settled someplace, I would be treated as those people were treated, and in fact I was fully prepared for it. But wherever I wentand in particular, here in Bedley Runit seemed people took an odd interest in telling me that I wasn't unwelcome.
Did this suit me? I can't be sure. I do know that once I decided to remain in this country, and to live here in Bedley Run, the question of my status mostly faded away, to the point it is today, which is almost nothing; and I know, too, that this must have been beneficial to me over the years, to have so troubling an issue removed from the daily turns of my life. I did have a few small difficulties from time to time, but it was always just the play of mischievous boys, who enjoyed making faces at me in the shop window, or chalking statements out front on the sidewalk, even going so far as to slather axle grease on the dumpster handles. I never reported the incidents, or confronted the perpetrators, and eventually these annoyances ceased. Later on, after the boys had grown up into men, some of the ones who settled in town would come into the store, to buy a bed tray, or a walker, or perhaps an ice bag for a feverish child, and they would speak to me as if they had never done the things I knew they had done, they would just make affable small talk and docilely ask my advice as they might from any doctor, their eyes wavering and expectant.
I should mention now that I am not a physician of any kind, and that I only ran a medical and surgical supply store in town, though for many patrons it came to be regarded as an informal drop-in clinic, the kind of place where people could freely ask questions of someone who was experienced and knowledgeable as well as open and friendly, a demeanor that quite a few doctors, unfortunately, no longer feature these days.
I say all this not to boast or self-congratulate, but to remind myself that though I was ever willing to help, it was the generous attitude of the customers that drew me out and gave me confidence, and that every decent and good thing that has come to me while I have lived here is due to some corollary of that welcoming, which I have never lost sight of. I know there are those who would say I've too keenly sought approval and consensus, and if over the years I've erred on the side of being grateful, well, so be it. I think one person can hardly understand why another has conducted his life in such a way, how he came to commit certain actions and not others, whether he looks upon the past with mostly pleasure or equanimity or regret. It seems difficult enough to consider one's own triumphs and failures with perfect verity, for it's no secret that the past proves a most unstable mirror, typically too severe and flattering all at once, and never as truth-reflecting as people would like to believe.
Indeed, I have long felt that I ought to place my energies toward the reckoning of what stands in the here and now, especially given my ever-dwindling years, and so this is what I shall do. My old store, Sunny Medical Supply, is now run by a youngish New York City couple who three years ago purchased it, with all the stock and inventory, and the two one-bedroom apartments above. They haven't changed anything, really. A few weeks ago I noticed that the gold-leaf lettering I ordered when the town required all the village shops to put up the same rustic style of sign is now quite chipped and dull, and needs refurbishing. In fact the whole storefront is looking weatherworn, unlike the other shops immediately beside it on Church Street, the stationers and the florists, whose windows change regularly and have colorful sale announcements and displays of merchandise.
I know as well as anyone that it's challenging for a medical supplier to create an attractive storefront, that bedpans and insulin kits don't make for a naturally scintillating display, but with a little effort and creativity it's not long before you can come up with a window that is almost pleasing to look at. And while I never expected customers to flock into the store because of such attentions, I don't know how many times someone poked his or her head in to compliment me, saying, "Pretty as a picture," or "Best on the street," or "You've got some kinda style, Doc."
Three years later, however, the store still has the very same display from the last Easter window I made up. Really, it's a sad sight for the eyes. Everything's been ruined by time and light. The petals of the nylon tulips are dingy with dust and crumbling, and the blue plastic eyes of the stuffed rabbits have faded to a glazed, watery gray, the fur unevenly tufted and bare and generally feeble-looking. The only thing different is that the window's merchandise has long been reclaimed: the gowns unpinned from the walls, the potty now gone, and finally, left matted in the plastic grass, the faintest impression of a pair of orthopedic shoes.
I finally decided the other day to call on the new owners, just to see how they were doing. I take a walk of some length daily, part of my retirement routine, and so it's no trouble to make my way down Church Street, which is the main thoroughfare of the town. For the first month or so after I sold the business to the Hickeys, I'd make sure to drop by regularly, perhaps two or three times a week, to check on them and see if they needed any help or advice.
Initially, I know, they were quite happy whenever the bell on the door tink-tinkled and they saw me step inside, especially Mrs. Hickey. The Hickeys were both new to the business, not just to selling medical supplies but to selling anything, and their one tenuous qualification for the work was that they were formerly EMS workers, partners in fact, driving an ambulance together down in the city.
I worried, of course, that the Hickeys were gravely inexperienced, and that they'd probably borrowed enough money that their monthly payments were dangerously high, and that with a young child in tow, they would find the demands of running a retail business more severe than they had ever anticipated. I didn't speak about these concerns, as I did feel it was finally time to sell the store. But I was concerned. So whenever I visited them, I would do whatever was needed, calling on any past-due accounts at the county hospital and area retirement homes, negotiating with suppliers, and even checking the store books, reconciling inflows and outflows. I must admit that after the new days of inactivity, I found it pleasurable doing the work again, talking (and invariably joking) with former business contacts, appraising new products and brochures, and then taking my deli sandwich and pickles at my old desk with a mug of green tea, a canister of which I always brought with me on those days I thought I might drop in.
Mrs. Hickey would always greet me warmly and immediately ask how they ought to do this thing or that, and I'd set to work right away, until before I knew it, more than half the day had passed. It was Mr. Hickey, in retrospect, who was sometimes reticent, as he would look up and nod wanly when I entered the store, and after a few weeks I'd first check to see if Mrs. Hickey was there before deciding to go inside. And so it happened quite unexpectedly one day, when Mr. Hickey asked if I might let them run the business themselves, that it was what they had paid me for and if I would finally honor that.
I was confused for a moment, mostly by his tone, because it seemed I was merely there at their own wishes, but I realized that he was telling me in his own way that they had received orientation enough. Mrs. Hickey looked mortified and excused herself to go look for something in the storeroom, and Mr. Hickey politely held open the door for me, not saying anything more, and I resolved then not to disturb them again until they found it necessary to contact me directly, when I should be happy to contribute in any way.
Which they hadn't asked me to do, I admit, a few days ago when I stopped by. But the sorry state of the window case, and the sobering talk I had recently heard from some Church Street merchants about the illness of their son made me feel that I ought to call on them at least once again.
When I entered the store I found, to my surprise, no one there. The shelves were stocked, though somewhat lightly, and the desk and counter were haphazardly covered with volumes of papers and carbons, the unmanned cash register appearing particularly exposed. The aisles had not been waxed in some time. About the whole place there was the sense of a dwindling, the feeling you get when you enter a house people are moving out of, an alarming spareness and disarray that almost seems to be the cause of the leaving, when of course it's just the result. I said hello a few times toward the back storeroom, but I got no answer. Then I heard voices, muffled, coming from what one might see as a closet door but was actually the back stair to the second-floor hall, where the two rental apartments were. The doorway was behind the counter, and naturally I went around, and then I cracked open the door, to hear who might be talking. For a moment, I had the alarming idea that the Hickeys were being robbed, and had been taken upstairs to be bound and gagged.
But of course what I heard was their voices, speaking softly to each other in a low, weary drone, as if they had been arguing at length and now suddenly weren't. They were talking, I could tell, about their son, Patrick. Mrs. Hickey was saying something about getting on Medicaid, now that there was no point in struggling anymore. Mr. Hickey didn't answer, and I understood she was talking about the store and business. I thought I should leave then, for I suddenly didn't like the feeling of eavesdropping on them, when the shop telephone rang out. The sound froze me for a moment, and before I could get on my way, I heard a heavy gallop descend the short stair, and Mr. Hickey opened the door just as I swung myself around the end of the counter.
When he saw me he glared, raising his finger to say something, but the telephone was ringing and he said to me instead, "You hold on," and he picked up the handset, his eyes unwavering in their fix on me. Mrs. Hickey came down, too, and when she saw me she broke into an easy smile. Her face was wet, her nose and cheeks hotly flushed and rosy, and in spite of this it was wonderful to see her again, to remember what an attractive and pleasant young woman she was, with such genuine warmth of spirit.
"Doc Hata," she said, wiping her nose with a tissue. "It's so nice to see you again. Gosh, I'm sorry I'm like this." She blew her nose. "That's that. Now, how have you been? You haven't been by in so long."
"Forgive me," I said, "but you know how busy people are, when they have nothing to do."
She laughed lightly at this and said, "For a while I wondered if maybe you had moved to Florida or someplace. But then I thought about it and I knew better. You're not someone who would leave his home so easily."
"You're absolutely right," I replied. "Besides, that kind of heat has never agreed with me."
"Do you still go on your two-hour walks?"
"Every day," I answered. Mr. Hickey was still quiet, holding the handset to his ear. I said to her, "Why don't we go together sometime? I head up through the state park these days, on the trails there, which are very pretty with the leaves full and shading. It's hilly, but not so hard. What do you think?"
But before she could answer, her husband brusquely put down the phone. "He's not having a good morning," he said to her, interrupting us as though he had been in our conversation all along. He was looking straight at his wife. "The new doctor is going to see him at one-thirty. I better get up there now." He regarded me for a long, awkward moment. Then he said, "What do you want here, old man?"
"Hold on, Annie. I'd just like to know what he wants from us. It can't be an accident that he's come today. Your buddy Mr. Finch at the bank didn't ask you to drop by, did he?"
It was a strange notion, and I had no reply.
"Well, you can tell him anyway he'll have the whole place soon. Lock, stock and barrel. We wish we could sell it, but do you know what the place is worth? I bet you have an idea."
"I can't say, Mr. Hickey."
"Sure you can't. You only say nice things, I guess. Should I tell you? About two-thirds what you sold it to us for. I'd have to find another hundred grand to clear the mortgage, after selling it. So it looks like foreclosure instead."
"He's not in the least at fault, James," Mrs. Hickey scolded. "So just please shut up now."
"This isn't blame, dear. I'm not blaming anybody," Mr. Hickey replied. He was regarding me with much umbrage. "This is just information. Mr. Hata appreciates knowing what's happening in his town. We don't need a mayor because we have Mr. Hata. I'm sorryDoc Hata. I never understood why you're called that when it's obvious you're not a doctor."
"I don't refer to myself as one."
"That you don't. That's true. But you seem to like the title. And I think it fits you, too."
Mrs. Hickey said, "Sometimes I despise you, James."
"Sometimes I despise me," her husband replied, suddenly looking hurt. He stared down at his feet. Then he tried to embrace her, but she turned away. "Oh, hell with it," he said, snatching his windbreaker from the rack on the wall. "Hell all." He marched out, leaving the door wide open.
Mrs. Hickey gathered herself and shut the door behind him. She was quite angry, though it was clear she was also deeply embarrassed and sorry for me. I told her she shouldn't worry about my feelings being hurt, for it was obvious her husband was under a terrible strain. Mrs. Hickey thanked me for my kindness, and though I assented, I didn't truly feel that it was kindness, on my part. Not really at all. It was an understanding, if anything. For I should say that I know from experience that the bearing of those in extreme circumstances can sometimes be untoward and even shocking, and we must try our best to understand what is actual and essential to a person, and what is by any indication anomalous, a momentary lapse that is better forgotten than considered time and time again, to little avail.
Mrs. Hickey asked if I might stay and talk a little while, and I was glad to. She told me more about her son. It was true what I'd heard, that his heart was congenitally diseased, and he was now in urgent need of a transplant. He was on the national registry, of course, and because of his age and condition almost at the top of the list, but the dysfunction had accelerated, and the doctors now told them that he was in real danger, that it was coming down to a matter of months, if a suitable donor wasn't located. This besides the fact that after two and a half years, they were almost out of insurance.
I had also visited on the day they were to inform the bank what their decision was about refinancing their mortgage, which was six months in arrears. Business wasn't booming, given that the local economy was in recession (which seemed to befall the area, unfortunately for the Hickeys, a short time after they bought my store), and that Sunny Medical Supply now had to compete with a franchise of a large regional supplier, which had opened in the neighboring town of Highbridge.
And yet with all this negativeness, Mrs. Hickey was still cheerful, joking and kidding and trying to put the best face on things, telling me how she took strength from Patrick, who never once complained about sleeping at the hospital, or eating the food. I had never actually met the boy, though I thought I could see him easily in his mother, whose sanguinity and resolve I admired without bound. I pictured him with her fair coloring and giddy spray of freckles, and the same sea-blue eyes, and then, too, possessed of the odd calm that very young children can sometimes have, even when they understand that dark fates may be near.
Eventually some customers came in, and I urged Mrs. Hickey to attend to them, while I should be getting on home. But before I could leave the store she had come over to see me out.
"Would you like to come see him sometime?" she asked me. "We take shifts, so you wouldn't have to worry about James, if you came when I was there. I could call you from the room."
"I'd be very happy to meet him," I said. "Anytime you wish to call me."
Mrs. Hickey seemed pleased, and she stepped outside. It was a social custom, strangely enough, that she'd picked up from watching me years before, the polite duty of a host or proprietor in bidding a respectful goodbye. It brought a warm feeling to my chest to have her come out accompanying me. But the customers were still inside, and I asked her please to go back and attend to them. I very nearly bowed, as if that might convince her, but then she did go in, and I'd already turned down the street when she called out to me once more.
"I just remembered," she said, her face brightening as she approached me. She was holding a dusty box, the kind photographic paper comes in. "I was cleaning out the storeroom last week, and I found this in an old briefcase. I'm sorry, I couldn't help but look inside. There are all kinds of neat pictures in there."
I could hardly remember leaving anything personal behind in the store.
"I noticed there's a young woman in many of them," Mrs. Hickey said. "She's very pretty. She's in quite a few, with you. Is she a relative?"
"Yes," I heard myself reply, accepting the box from her. "You must be talking about Sunny."
"Sunny? Did you name the store after her?"
I said, "I suppose I did."
"Where is she now?"
"She came from Japan," I said, "many years ago, and stayed for some schooling. She went back."
"Well, she's certainly lovely. She must be a grown woman now."
"Yes," I said, taking my leave. "I haven't seen her in quite a long time. But thank you."
"Will you call about our walk?"
"And Patrick, too?"
Before she could say any more I quickly made my way down Church Street, following it to the traffic square where it meets River and then Mountview, which is the street I live on. As I climbed the gentle rise of the old road, I wished that I hadn't spoken inaccurately about Sunny to Mrs. Hickey, but the moment, like so many others, passed too swiftly, as I didn't feel I could explain things without further complication and embarrassment. I went the half-mile to the road's crest, where the house I bought nearly thirty years ago stands amid a copse of mature elm and oak and maple. Inside, the house was warm and lighted. As usual I'd left the lamps on in the hall and kitchen, and I turned them off before going upstairs. I often prepared myself an early dinner of soup noodles or a casserole of oden with rice, but I decided to go straight up to my bedroom and read. It wasn't until the middle of the evening that I stopped, when it occurred to me that I should at least have a snack, so that I wouldn't toss in my sleep or wake up famished. I put on my robe and went out to the stairs, but instead of descending, I wandered down the hallway, to the far door, to the room where Sunny once lived.
For some moments I stood before the door. When I finally opened it, I was surprised by the sudden chill; the heating ducts had long been shut, and an icy curl of air lapped past my bare feet. I remembered, then, how it had taken longer than I expected to clear the room completely: it was crammed full of her furnishings, every sort of bric-a-brac and notion and wall hanging. She had left the house in a hurry. In the following weeks I worked on the room in my spare time, in the evenings and on the weekends. I remember patching and repainting the ceiling and walls, making sure to fix all the mars in the plaster. There were larger pocks, into which I found it easy enough to spade the filler. But it was the smaller ones, particularly the tack holes, which seemed to number in the hundreds, that took the greatest part of my time. In the end, I found myself doing the work in half-foot squares, pressing in the paste with the tip of a finger, smoothing it out, and it wasn't until much later, as I'd drift into the room to inspect for missed holes, running my hand over the surfaces, that the whole project was quite satisfactorily done.
What People are saying about this
"A beautiful, solitary, remarkably tender book."—The New York Times Book Review
"A Gesture Life is the touching, multilayered rumination of an uneasy psyche. It is also a tragic, horrifying page-turner, whose evocation of wartime victims is unforgettable...A deeply involving tale, no less so because we realize, almost from the first chapter, that we can't trust Hata's version of events. [Lee] enlists the reader's full energies to interpret this enigmatic speaker, who saddens, baffles and unfuriates us all at once."—Chicago Tribune
"Once again, this gifted young author has given us a beautifully tapestried story of seeking identity and acceptance in another culture while remaining separate from the tug of it."—The Christian Science Monitor
"Lee elegantly creates suspense out of the seemingly static story of a man trying hard not to feel. He has written a wise and humane novel that both amplifies the themes of identity and exile he addressed in Native Speaker, and creates a wonderfully resonant portrait of a man caught between two cultures and two lives."—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
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