BOOKS: Patti Kim

Patti Kim
A Cab Called Reliable
Wyatt Books/St. Martin's Press

P atti Kim is an immigrant writing an immigrant's story. So the fact that her first novel, A Cab Called Reliable, is written in short, simple sentences could be interpreted as a choice solely of sentiment--as if the Korean-born writer were nostalgic for the cadences of stilted, second-language English.

Her style, it turns out, is deliberate: By writing sparely, she avoids sentimentality in a story filled with misfortune. When Korean immigrant Ahn Joo Cho is 8 years old, her mother leaves her father, taking Ahn Joo's baby brother but not Ahn Joo herself. This girl is left behind in the care of her father, a quietly angry man struggling with alcoholism and loneliness. She soon grows to resent him for for his cultural naïveté. When he quits welding and buys a hot-dog truck, her only thoughts are a vicious embarrassment: "As I grew tired of counting and correcting my father's pronunciation errors, I closed my eyes and leaned against the hot-dog buns, telling myself he was better off underground, masked by a dark helmet, and welding the ceilings and walls of the Clarendon subway station."

What keeps Ahn Joo's lament fresh is the blunt plainness of Kim's voice. Facts and feelings are direct, unfiltered, and unrehearsed. Kim avoids any over-analysis that might bog down her narrative; the deepest concerns--self-denial, abandonment, alienation--linger just under the surface, aching even more for never having been confronted. In one plaintive chapter, she writes a series of letters to her long-gone mother--letters that might never reach their destination. She tells her mother a battery of petty details--where they're moving, what business her father's in, what's in their refrigerator--to avoid mentioning her feelings of loss and neglect. That omission lends an authentic poignancy to Ahn Joo's sorrow. And it's this same restraint that makes A Cab Called Reliable so singularly heartbreaking.

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