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by Young-Ha Kim ; translated by Krys Lee

Pub Date: July 11th, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-544-32447-3
Publisher: Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

A pair of alienated, hypersensitive South Korean boys seek solace, first from each other and then from the volatile subculture of their homeless, aimless peers.

Kim (I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, 2010, etc.), a prolific and eclectic Korean novelist, has found artistically fertile ground in the broken lives of his country’s misfits. And it would be difficult to imagine two more marginalized protagonists than Jae and Donggyu. Jae, born in Seoul's Express Bus Terminal to a homeless teenager, is destined from the start to repeat his mother's fate. A few years later, Jae, who's been adopted by a “hostess club” kitchen employee, meets Donggyu, the son of a police detective, and they forge a lifelong bond. Jae is the only person who can communicate with Donggyu, who for years will not say a word to anyone. Jae’s ability to be “the interpreter" of Donggyu's desires foretells psychic gifts that help him not only survive, but prevail when he’s compelled to forage through the city’s meaner streets of criminals, prostitutes, and teen runaways. Though Donggyu eventually shows his ability to speak, he remains more a watchful listener as he witnesses Jae’s transition from grubby, emaciated street rat to charismatic leader of one of the many motorcycle gangs racing and roaring with aimless swagger through the city’s streets. The source of Jae’s power seems to be his omnidirectional empathy not merely with people, but with animals, plants, and even inanimate objects. (“If a being experiences extreme suffering, I feel it, too," he says.) Donggyu, being the first to recognize Jae’s gifts, eventually becomes a motorcyclist himself, investing his less messianic but just as intense degree of empathy into the other wayward youths drawn into Jae’s circle. Like the shifting gears of an engine, Kim’s narrative changes perspectives from Donggyu’s first-person recollections to wide-screen omniscience to the point of view of an enigmatic police officer and even to that of the author himself, following a climactic motorcycle rally whose stunning denouement leaves behind many more questions than answers.

The story’s transitions aren’t always navigated as deftly as Kim intends. But his own empathetic gifts applied toward even the quirkiest and seediest of his characters evoke a vivid panorama of what life along the edges is like in Seoul.