Aloft by Chang-rae Lee | Paperback | Barnes & Noble


3.8 22
by Chang-rae Lee

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The New York Times–bestselling novel by the critically acclaimed author of Native Speaker and A Gesture Life.

At 59, Jerry Battle is coasting through life. His favorite pastime is flying his small plane high above Long Island. Aloft, he can escape from the troubles that plague his family, neighbors, and loved ones on the ground. But he


The New York Times–bestselling novel by the critically acclaimed author of Native Speaker and A Gesture Life.

At 59, Jerry Battle is coasting through life. His favorite pastime is flying his small plane high above Long Island. Aloft, he can escape from the troubles that plague his family, neighbors, and loved ones on the ground. But he can't stay in the air forever. Only months before his 60th birthday, a culmination of family crises finally pull Jerry down from his emotionally distant course.

Jerry learns that his family's stability is in jeopardy. His father, Hank, is growing increasingly unhappy in his assisted living facility. His son, Jack, has taken over the family landscaping business but is running it into bankruptcy. His daughter, Theresa, has become pregnant and has been diagnosed with cancer. His longtime girlfriend, Rita, who helped raise his children, has now moved in with another man. And Jerry still has unanswered questions that he must face regarding the circumstances surrounding the death of his late wife.

Since the day his wife died, Jerry has turned avoiding conflict into an art form-the perfect expression being his solitary flights from which he can look down on a world that appears serene and unscathed. From his comfortable distance, he can't see the messy details, let alone begin to confront them. But Jerry is learning that in avoiding conflict, he is also avoiding contact with the people he loves most.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Whether you find the new book a joyous revelation, an ascent in Lee's career, or a betrayal and a wrong turn depends, I think, on how much you had invested in him as a spokesman for a particular ethnic experience, and in how predictable you like your authors. I appreciate a writer who's not overzealously committed to any one ideology or group, who likes to confound expectations and who feels expansive enough in his spirit and ambitions to encompass not just his close kinsmen but the infamous Other. With Aloft, Chang-rae Lee proves himself just such a writer. — Paul Di Filippo
The New York Times
Mr. Lee creates a pointillist portrait of three generations of a family as it has motored its way from blue collar immigrant hopes to bourgeois respectability to new money indulgence, and in doing so he gently nudges Jerry and his relatives into holding up a mirror to the American Dream in all its glittering and treacherous promise. — Michiko Kakutani
Publishers Weekly
Lee's third novel (after Native Speaker and A Gesture Life) approaches the problems of race and belonging in America from a new angle-the perspective of Jerry Battle, the semiretired patriarch of a well-off (and mostly white) Long Island family. Sensitive but emotionally detached, Jerry escapes by flying solo in his small plane even as he ponders his responsibilities to his loved ones: his irascible father, Hank, stewing in a retirement home; his son, Jack, rashly expanding the family landscaping business; Jerry's graduate student daughter, Theresa, engaged to Asian-American writer Paul and pregnant but ominously secretive; and Jerry's long-time Puerto Rican girlfriend, Rita, who has grown tired of two decades of aloofness and left him for a wealthy lawyer. Jack and Theresa's mother was Jerry's Korean-American wife, Daisy, who drowned in the swimming pool after a struggle with mental illness when Jack and Theresa were children, and Theresa's angry postcolonial take on ethnicity and exploitation is met by Jerry's slightly bewildered efforts to understand his place in a new America. Jerry's efforts to win back Rita, Theresa's failing health and Hank's rebellion against his confinement push the meandering narrative along, but the novel's real substance comes from the rich, circuitous paths of Jerry's thoughts-about family history and contemporary culture-as his family draws closer in a period of escalating crisis. Lee's poetic prose sits well in the mouth of this aging Italian-American whose sentences turn unexpected corners. Though it sometimes seems that Lee may be trying to embody too many aspects of 21st-century American life in these individuals, Jerry's humble and skeptical voice and Lee's genuine compassion for his compromised characters makes for a truly moving story about a modern family. Agent, Amanda Urban. Foreign rights sold in France, Germany, Holland and the U.K. (Mar.) Forecast: Comparable to Updike's later Rabbit novels and Begley's About Schmidt, Aloft broadens Lee's scope and should bump his sales and reputation up another notch. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In his third novel (after Native Speaker and A Gesture Life), Lee applies his remarkable storytelling skills to create a monstrous first-person narrator. Not that retired Long Island businessman and part-time travel agent Jerry Battle is a murderer, sexual predator, or any sort of criminal according to law. However, his defect is both serious and destructive: he is an emotional miser, distancing himself from others and keeping himself above the risks of emotional involvement. Not completely without insight, Jerry recognizes the irony and symbolism of his favorite pastime, soaring solo in his private plane-but only in clear weather. He could not be less prepared when virtually every element of his personal life goes haywire simultaneously: his longtime lover walks out, his dad disappears from an assisted-living home, his son dangerously overextends the family landscaping firm, and his pregnant daughter contracts a terminal illness. Jerry's graceless yet sometimes endearing attempts to cope with these disasters (and their attendant reminders of the bizarre death, decades before, of his beautiful Korean American wife) round out a masterly portrait of a disaffected personality. Unfortunately, the other characters, seen solely from Jerry's self-absorbed viewpoint, are often little more than two-dimensional foils for Jerry's worries and obsessions. Still, Lee's radiant writing style will please fans of his earlier fiction, and the plot will interest readers who liked Louis Begley's About Schmidt. Recommended for larger collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/03.]-Starr E. Smith, Fairfax Cty. P.L., VA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
...a brilliant and candid parsing of the dynamics of a family of mixed heritage [and] a ribald look at male sexuality, a charming celebration of the solace of good food, and a sagacious and bitingly funny critique of our times. (starred review)
Kirkus Reviews
An introspective widower rises above his "habit/condition of disbelieving the Real"-in this generously ruminative third novel. Its predecessors (Native Speaker, 1995; A Gesture Life, 1999) explored the comedy and pathos of assimilation into American culture with a compassionate precision here lavished on almost-60 Jerry Battle (born "Battaglia"), whom we first meet "aloft," in the small private plane to which he retreats from quotidian pressures. Not unlike the transplanted Asians of Lee's earlier books, he's an ingredient in a rich multiethnic mix. Since the drowning death (in the family pool) of his Korean-American wife Daisy 20 years earlier, Jerry has had a gratifying affair with Puerto Rican beauty Rita Reyes, now his ex-and maintained close if wary relationships with his son Jack (who runs, and has significantly expanded the Battles' landscaping business) and daughter Theresa, a literature professor engaged to, and pregnant by, Asian-American writer Paul Pyun. What energizes Lee's very deliberately paced fiction is the accretion of detail with which his closely observed characters' shared and separate experiences and worlds are created. We feel we know everything about decent, caring Jerry (still hungry for life-and quite reminiscent of several John Updike narrators), gutsy Theresa (whose serious illness threatens her pregnancy and her life), Paul's quiet strength, Rita's spirited independence, Jack's frustrating combination of profligacy and resilience, and-in a triumphant characterization-Jerry's ornery octogenarian father Hank, too alive to be contained by the assisted living center where he reluctantly resides or by Jerry's disapproving concern. Aloft's muted conclusioncontrasts tellingly with its opening image, as Jerry hunkers down in the hole dug for a new pool, at peace with his "finally examined and thus remorseful life . . . [and resolved that] I'll go solo no more, no more." Beautiful writing, richly drawn characters, and a powerful sense of life enduring in spite of all. A fine and very moving performance. First serial to the New Yorker. Agent: Amanda Urban/ICM
From the Publisher
Leslie's reading matches the superior writing. Almost immediately he assumes Battle's full persona; he is equally skillful with the other characters, using volume, pitch, nuance, and pauses to great effect. A fine pairing of a superior novel and an exceptional narrator.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.16(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter one

FROM UP H E R E, a half mile above the Earth, everything

looks perfect to me.I am in my nifty little Skyhawk, banking her back into the sun,

having nearly completed my usual fair-weather loop. Below is the

eastern end of Long Island, and I’m flying just now over that part

of the land where the two gnarly forks shoot out into the Atlantic.

The town directly ahead, which is nothing special when you’re on

foot, looks pretty magnificent now, the late-summer sun casting

upon the macadam of the streets a soft, ebonized sheen, its orangey

light reflecting back at me, matching my direction and

speed in the windows and bumpers of the parked cars and swimming

pools of the simple, square houses set snugly in rows. There

is a mysterious, runelike cipher to the newer, larger homes wagoning

in their cul-de-sac hoops, and then, too, in the flat roofs of the

shopping mall buildings, with their shiny metal circuitry of

HVAC housings and tubes.

From up here, all the trees seem ideally formed and arranged,

as if fretted over by a persnickety florist god, even the ones (no

doubt volunteers) clumped along the fencing of the big scrap

metal lot, their spindly, leggy uprush not just a pleasing garnish to

the variegated piles of old hubcaps and washing machines, but

then, for a stock guy like me, mere heartbeats shy of sixty (hard to

even say that), the life signs of a positively priapic yearning. Just

to the south, on the baseball diamond—our people’s pattern

supreme—the local Little League game is entering the late innings,

the baby-blue-shirted players positioned straightaway and

shallow, in the bleachers their parents only appearing to sit churchquiet

and still, the sole perceivable movement a bounding goldenhaired

dog tracking down a Frisbee in deep, deep centerfield.

Go, boy, go.

And as I point my ship—Donnie is her name—to track alongside

the broad arterial lanes of Route 495, the great and awful

Long Island Expressway, and see the already-accrued jams of the

Sunday Hamptons traffic inching back to the city, the grinding

columns of which, from my seat, appear to constitute an orderly

long march, I feel as if I’m going at a heady light speed, certainly

moving too fast in relation to the rest, an imparity that should by

any account invigorate but somehow unsettles all the same, and I

veer a couple of degrees northwest to head over the remaining

patchworks of farmland and scrubby forest and then soon enough

the immense, uninterrupted stretch of older, densely built townships

like mine, where beneath the obscuring canopy men like me

are going about the last details of their weekend business, sweeping

their front walks and dragging trash cans to the street and

washing their cars just as they have since boyhood and youth,

soaping from top to bottom and brushing the wheels of sooty

brake dust, one spoke at a time.

confetti of a million cigarette butts, the ever-creeping sidewalk

mosses and weeds; I can’t see the tumbling faded newspaper circular

page, or the dead, gassy possum beached at the foot of the curb,

the why of its tight, yellow-toothed grin.

All of which, for the moment, is more than okay with me.

Is that okay?


I bought this plane not for work or travel or the pure wondrous

thrill of flight, which can and has, indeed, been scarily, transcendentally

life-affirming and so on, but for the no doubt seriously unexamined

reason of my just having to get out of the house.

That’s certainly what my longtime (and recently ex-) girlfriend,

Rita Reyes, was thinking about several years ago, when she

gave me a flying lesson out at Islip for my birthday. Really, of

course, she meant it as a diversionary excursion, just a hands-on

plane ride, never intending it to lead to anything else.

At the time she was deeply worried about me, as I was a year

into having early-retired from the family landscaping business

and was by all indications mired in a black hole of a rut, basically

moping around the house and snacking too much. On weekdays,

after Rita left for her job as a home-care nurse (she now works the

ER), I’d do my usual skim of the paper in front of the TV and then

maybe watch a ladies’ morning talk show and soon enough I’d feel

this sharp nudge of ennui and I’d head to the nearby Walt Whitman

Mall (the poet was born in a modest house right across the

street, which is now something they call an “interpretive center”

and is open for tours) for what I would always hope was the easeful

company of like-minded people but would end up instead, depending

on the selling season, to be frantic clawing hordes or else

a ghost town of seniors sitting by the islands of potted ficus, depressing

and diminishing instances both.

When Rita came back home, the breakfast dishes would still be

clogging the table, and I’d be on the back patio nursing a third

bottle of light beer or else napping in the den after leafing

through my tattered Baedeker’s Italy for the umpteenth time.

She’d try to be helpful and patient but it was hard, as that’s what

she’d done all day long. More often than not we’d end up in a

shouting match because she’d toss aside my guidebook a bit too

casually and I’d say something loose and mean about her mother,

and she’d retreat to the bedroom while I went to the car and

revved the engine inside for a long minute before clicking open

the garage door. I’d find myself at a run-down Chinese place on

Jericho, chasing a too-sweet Mai Tai with wonton soup for dinner

and then phoning Rita, to see if she wanted her usual pupu platter

appetizer and shrimp with black beans, which she would, and

which I’d bring back and duly serve to her, as the saying goes, with

love and squalor.

Meet the Author

Chang-rae Lee is the author of Native Speaker, winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for first fiction, A Gesture Life, Aloft, and The Surrendered, winner of the Dayton Peace Prize and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Selected by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best writers under forty, Chang-rae Lee teaches writing at Princeton University.

Brief Biography

Princeton, New Jersey
Date of Birth:
July 29, 1965
Place of Birth:
Seoul, Korea
B.A. in English, Yale University, 1987; M.F.A. in Creative Writing, University of Oregon, 1993

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