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 conclusion contrasts 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.