How Green Was My Lawn?

Wait a second there, buddy: Are you trying to tell me that the streets of suburbia aren't paved with gumdrops? Novelist Chang-Rae Lee
Marion Ettlinger
Change-Rae Lee

At some point during the past half-century, suburban malaise tipped over from cliché to kitsch. When John Cheever and John Updike wrote of men and women smothered by the domestic impulse back in the Eisenhower era, they aired a sentiment that was dangerous and disruptive. Now, thanks to movies like American Beauty, The Virgin Suicides, Far from Heaven, and Elephant, folks who move to the 'burbs know, or ought to know, what they're getting into. If there's not a high school shooting or some awful accident in these tales of suburban living, then someone, somewhere, winds up dead. The message to those seeking the safety and security of the decent school and the pleasant lawn? Be careful what you wish for.

For these reasons, Chang-Rae Lee's latest novel, Aloft, feels a bit like a throwback, minus the sturm und drang of self-conscious transgression. Set on Long Island in the present day, the book simply and elegantly conjures the inner life of Jerry Battle, a 59-year-old and early widower who spends his downtime up in the air, piloting a prop plane along the seacoast. As this hobby might suggest, Jerry likes to escape his problems, which become more and more numerous as the novel progresses. For one, his 85-year-old father is not going gentle into that good night at a $5,500-a-month nursing home. Meanwhile, his daughter, a 30-year-old Stanford Ph.D., might beat her grandfather to the gates if she doesn't abort her baby and treat the lymphatic cancer that she discovered on the eve of her marriage.

Like all of Lee's narrators, Jerry is solipsistic to the point of duplicity. The novel's opening, which finds Jerry aloft, touring the contours of Long Island, doesn't even begin to suggest the mess of his domestic affairs. Those details come out slowly--a little too slowly--and we get the sense that, at some point, Jerry took his hands off the controls to see if his domestic ship could pilot itself. It can't, of course, and Jerry must lurch back into caretaking mode, which brings back a host of ghosts and issues. Questions remain about his wife's death some two decades earlier, and readers are apt to wonder if this doesn't explain the aloofness of Jerry's only son, Jack, who is spending money faster than he makes it--no small feat.

What we accumulate in life--the money, the stuff, and the emotional baggage--is Lee's central preoccupation here. In fact, the word "accrue" appears four times in the first hundred pages, hardly an accident for a writer as deliberate and polished as Lee. A party at Jack's house plays this theme out beautifully. Touring the 6,500-square-foot monstrosity, Jerry shakes his head at his son's extravagant greed: the minibar upstairs in the bedroom, the separate trolley for the entertainment center's multiple remote controls, the three-car garage and recently purchased artwork. Meanwhile, as Jack and his wife serve caviar canapés, his grandfather slips in the bathroom and soils himself. Jerry is the one who has to go up and clean him off.

When I sit him up there's a huge grapey bruise on his upper thigh just below his hip. His wrist and elbow still sting from the short fall off the toilet but he says he can get up. I tuck my shoulder beneath his armpit and we rise. I feel the dense weight of his limbs, more of him now than there ever was, the last few years of sedentary living accruing to him like unpicked fruit, this useless bounty, and I think it's not only his body but his mind, ever crammed with unrequited notions and thoughts. As his clothes are ruined and I'm no doubt the closest in size, I take off my pants and give them to him, so he can get upstairs and shower off.

Looking at his old man, Jerry knows he's next and he won't admit how scared this makes him. He wants to float up and away from the maw that awaits him at life's end. To do otherwise would be to face his own unrequited notions, not to mention the unresolved grief over his wife's death.

In his previous novels, Native Speaker and A Gesture Life, Lee refracted this anxiety through race. The Korean-American characters in those novels could hide from themselves because they were caught between two cultures, the hyphen in their name a breezeway between one identity and the next. Here, he gives Jerry no such protection. He is just your regular "white dude," a crude term, and one of the only moments in this oddly beautiful novel where Lee's prose falters.

Jerry worked hard, raised his kids as best he could, and saved for retirement. Somehow it's not enough. He wants something, but he can't figure out what. He's looking for it up there in the ether until real life pulls him swiftly and harshly back to earth.

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