by Cygne Sauvage
A good read is an excellent antidote to the tension spawned by a serious engagement to beat work deadline. So, I scanned our book shelves/boxes and spotted this book which I remember has been lounging in that dilapidated container for several months, one of those brought home by my peripatetic housemates who are earnest bibliophiles as well. It is not a work of fiction, but a factual narrative of establishing a small scale business in the US by immigrants, which I imagine must be a tough undertaking, similar in a way to a Caucasian holding out one’s space in a huge Chinese community.
The other factor that caught my interest in My Korean Deli: Risking it All for a Convenience Store is the author’s background. Ben Ryder Howe is a former Senior Editor of The Paris Review, and I always have this not unfounded bias, and never been disproved so far, favoring former journalists. They must have a good command of the language, therefore, write good prose which, for me, is essential element in the enjoyment of reading the book.
Indeed this bias holds true. Howe narrates his family’s tribulations in setting up a convenience store in the heart of Brooklyn, in a close neighborhood inhabited by tenacious stalwarts, that include their own suppliers and workers, not bereft of violent predispositions dominant in a locale’s demographic profile where everyday living is a battle for survival. Nevertheless, the thuggish crowd proves to be no match to the diligence and steadfastness of Kay, the indomitable mother-in-law of Howe, to whose daughter he has been betrothed, and acquainted since their puberty years. Thus, the highlights of myriad sub-stories are about Howe’s acquired family’s ingenuity, its cohesiveness, its cultural peculiarities that impact the sustainability of the business, and of course his marriage.
Miserable, and even grotesque, reality is described in vivid, hilarious manner, always with comedic relief, punctuated with loads of sarcasm. Thus, the reader doesn’t end up commiserating with Howe’s skirmishes and strife, rather amused with his brilliant and scintillating accounts of his two worlds as a worker: as a senior editor in a magazine and as a deli cashier slash clerk slash purchaser, etc.
Actually, the dual life he leads is the gist of his tale told only through the metamorphosis of a convenience store. In juxtaposition, Howe’s employers are of diverse, opposite predispositions in life. Kay’s idea of fun is hard work, while The Paris Review’s publisher/owner George Plimpton’ s concept of work is having fun. The former represents the reality of back-breaking toil, while the latter is a dreamland struggling with reality.