Aloft, by Chang-rae Lee

by Robert A. Parker

This 2004 work is a truly American novel by this Korean-born writer who arrived here at the age of three and is now completely Americanized. Unlike his first two novels, however, it is not about an Eastern hero adapting to American life. It is about another kind of immigrant, one Jerry Battle, a third-generation Italian encountering the normal travails of an American family seeking the advantages of a middle-class Long Island life.

Yet Lee does not completely ignore his own cultural integration. For Jerry’s wife Daisy was a Korean, but now has died and left him with two children, Jack and Theresa. And Jerry now has a former girl friend, Rita, who is Puerto Rican and whom he yearns for. Plus, his children, of course, are half Asian, and Theresa has an Asian boyfriend. And important also is Jerry’s father, Pops, now at an assisted-living home, but who also represents the Italian immigrant experience.

What captured this reader from the start, what involved me with Jerry and his family, was his voice. It is readily captured by Ron Charles, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, who describes a voice “that’s maddeningly self-absorbed, wonderfully witty, constantly conflicted, often wise, and ultimately redeemed.” He also writes that “Lee’s genius is this confidential voice, full of cultural analysis, ironic asides, sexual candor, and unconscious revelations…perpetually buoyed by wit and insight.” The reader is both inside that highly opinionated voice and stimulated by it, and yet also aware of Jerry’s failure to understand those in that world outside him.

Jerry confronts a number of problems in this novel, but his primary one stems from his aloofness from everyone, his refusal to involve himself in any situation, even the problems of his own children. Instead, he prefers to escape from them. This is represented metaphorically by his hobby, in which he flees to the airport to fly his small plane, enabling him to rise above the world and everyone in it. This hobby also prompts the novel’s title, and will lead to a climactic flying scene that is the dramatic high point of the book.

But Lee keeps the reader grounded as he writes about Jerry and his family, and their pursuit of the America dream—the dream for wealth, love, and happiness. While completely different from Jonathan Franzen’s novels, this work does share an interest in family life, what pulls a family apart and what brings it together. (Other reviewers have noted a link to Updike and Roth for their focus on family life, but those are authors not writing today.) In the Battle family (ne Battaglia), a masonry business that Jerry’s father turned into a landscaping business now has been turned by his affable son Jack into a home improvement business serving the wealthy. Because Jack has wanted to please his wife and impress his cold and aloof father. But his problem is that he has overextended in an economic downturn, and now faces bankruptcy. Meanwhile daughter Therese, the brains in the family, has returned from Oregon, to which she escaped. She is back with her Asian boyfriend, and now reveals she is pregnant and has a health issue.

So between Rita, whom he yearns for, and his two children needing help, plus an unhappy father at a nursing home he decides to flee, Jerry’s struggle to connect with them is real. And as he narrates these issues in a self-deprecating manner, revealing his self-awareness about his failure as a husband, father, and lover, he earns the interest and sympathy of the reader. The result is an interesting novel, one which might border on soap opera for some, but which drew me into this family and earned my concern for their fate—especially the fate of a 60-year-old man, not often the hero of a novel.

On the other hand, Lee avoids milking a dramatic scene at times. First is a grudge tennis match with a rival for Rita’s affections. Jerry risks his airplane on winning the match; and while the lead-up to that scene is brilliantly, even satirically, dramatized, we do not read about the final drama of the match. Likewise, Jerry dramatically lands his plane in the soup at New Haven with his daughter on board and about to give birth, but we do not witness what happens after he lands. Perhaps Lee wishes to focus on the effect of these scenes on family relationships rather than on the event itself.

However, there are also dramatic scenes from the past that Lee and narrator Jerry do recall. Foremost is the death of Daisy, Jerry’s wife, in their swimming pool. Jerry receives a new insight at the end about how it happened, which justifies an earlier and extended dramatic confrontation with her just before her death. He also recalls the drama of Pops struggling with the original business and the drama of the loss of Jerry’s brother in Vietnam—all of which serves to deepen these family relationships.

Perhaps what Aloft has in common with Lee’s earlier work is the theme of adapting to one’s circumstances. In this case, it is about a reserved father who finds it difficult to adapt to the needs of his own family. Who flies above it all whenever he can. Indeed, fatherhood offers the key to this novel. It begins with Jerry’s relationship with his own father, a philanderer who kept aloof from his family and taught his son to do the same. Which Jerry does, but then finds himself uncomfortable with the kind of freedom it gives him, freedom to travel the world, for example, and not commit himself to anyone or any place. He is uncomfortable with this life because he misses not being a real father to his children, not having a connection that enables them to come to him for advice or him to approach them if he sees them troubled.

Yes, I will continue searching out Lee’s novels, for I am drawn to characters who seek to accommodate themselves to a different culture. And Lee has not only the background to do that but also has the sensitivity to bring it to a personal level. And not least, to understand the specific, concrete symbols of that different culture— such as the details of flying, cooking, landscaping, travel agenting, nursing homes, middle-class living, and confronting death.

Ted Weesner, Jr. sums up Aloft, citing “characters who are precisely drawn, lovably human, painfully flawed, viewed in the deep and knowing manner of a caring parent [while] unspoken resentments, grievances, befuddlement, [and] failed expectations come to the surface.” (January, 2016)

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