In 'My Korean Deli,' Ben Ryder Howe Attempts to Overcome Upper-Middle-Class Liberal Artsiness

Plimpton and Kay Pak, Mr. Howe’s boss and his mother-in-law, become the two poles of his book. Each is both poignant and endearingly cartoonish, and each speaks in a broad-strokes ethnic dialect.

“Don’t be afraid of steam table,” Kay tells Mr. Howe while deli hunting. “If smelling something stranger, close nose and think of biiig money.”

“I’ve had a bit of a mishap,” George informs his staff the morning after taking a fall. “That blasted floor at the Colony Club is harder than it looks. I mean the Century Club–or was it the Brook? Anyway, that floor was marble, pure marble, I can tell you.”

We get to see Plimpton as wacky George, bumbling around the office in boxers, showing employees an MRI of his testicles, proposing an interview with “Niminam,” by which he means Eminem, “the freestyle vocalist.”

And what of immersion journalism in the Plimptonian tradition? It turns out literary manliness isn’t about boxing anymore; it’s about overcoming your upper-middle-class liberal artsiness enough to interact with poor people.

Mr. Howe is plenty self-aware, and his account of the friction between his two lives–while lacking in surprises–is appropriately self-deprecating. The Paris Review is his real job, his actual career, but still he squirms with the sense that it’s vaguely bogus. “The Paris Review was not a real place,” he writes, “or at least that’s sometimes how it felt.” He notes on another occasion that “there’s an air of unreality in publishing” more generally. Selling tall-boys and snack cakes may or may not be risky, but its reality is indisputable. 

In other words, “There’s no ‘blah blah blah,’ as Kay would put it–‘just do.’ (Like her syntax in English, Kay’s life doesn’t have a conditional or subjunctive tense–only action.)” Oh, the plight of the helplessly verbal.

Meanwhile, Mr. Howe’s own mother and father prove quite supportive. They’re fans of “just do,” provided that it leads to some appropriately reflective “blah blah blah.”

“Could be an interesting experience,” says his academic father when told of the plan, “sort of an ethnography, a participatory study into the lives of the urban underclass. Orwell worked as a dishwasher, you know. Conrad spent his early life aboard ships.”

Which brings us back to that original question–whether Mr. Howe bought the deli to write the book. Perhaps, strictly speaking, he did not. But this is how Mr. Howe describes the difference between Asian and American families: “In America, kids are supposed to antagonize their parents: they’re supposed to torture them as teenagers, abandon them in college, then write a memoir in which they blame them for all their unhappiness as adults.” His own particular family, some pages later, he describes thus: “We like to think things through–then think about whether the process of thinking them through was as thorough as it could have been, then write a book about it. (A book that takes twenty years.)”

Who does Mr. Howe think he is kidding? Of course he was always going to write this. When your family rule book is Strunk and White, everything is material–and Mr. Howe seems to have clocked in well under 20 years, so maybe next time we’ll see a parenting memoir.

            editorial@observer.com