The deli is a good place to stage New York stories. There are lots of things to do there, from grocery shopping to armed robbery, and the setting makes them feel both particular and universal. Once, in our early months in the city, my roommate received a pack of Camels on credit at our corner store. This meant that dreams could come true. Once, alone and drunk late at night, I abandoned a copy of The House of Mirth on the counter while purchasing ice cream. This meant that I was a fool–but, because I recovered it the next day, not a total fool.
We do many activities at our delis, but buying the deli is a basically inconceivable way to interact with it. This is what former Paris Review editor Ben Ryder Howe did a few years back, and now he has written a book about the experience, My Korean Deli (Holt, 320 pages, $25). In the author’s note, Mr. Howe recounts a predictable accusation he’s faced: “You bought the deli so you could write the book, didn’t you? Admit it.” He thinks not, but he isn’t sure. “I had to ask myself, Was he right?” Mr. Howe writes. “Could that have been one of my motives, secret even to myself?”
Ostensibly, the plan was to buy a business for his in-laws. He and his wife had saved a nest egg by living in her parents’ Staten Island basement, and intended to put it toward the purchase of their own home. Then a fit of filial guilt seizes his wife: She wants to repay her Korean mother’s sacrifices. Because her mom loves work (“I do anything not to be the lazy person,” says the mom. “If I’m not doing something all the time, whole body hurt, feel like sick or something. Want to die”) and has convenience-store clerking experience, this gift will be a deli on Hoyt Street in Brooklyn.
On the personal-growth front, Mr. Howe says that he also hopes to experience risk: “Not simulated risk, not managed risk, not the sort of risk you get whizzing down a zip line in Outward Bound.” Rather, he wants “the real world, dog-eat-dog, kill or be killed.” Literary publishing does not count.
Along the way to the real world, Mr. Howe and the reader learn some neat facts about delis. Green awnings indicate Korean establishments, generally with fresh produce; red and yellow are Dominican, and stock mostly canned goods. Deli coffee comes from a company called USA Coffee, which offers products called “Donut Blend” and “Brown Gold” to “large offices and other institutional settings.” These are the sorts of secrets that lurk in any job not one’s own, and they give the memoir its satisfying crunch.
Then there’s Mr. Howe’s other workplace, The Paris Review. In a hook that may draw more readers than deli trivia will, My Korean Deli offers a peek at the last days of George Plimpton. Mr. Howe was a senior editor back when the magazine still operated out of the basement of Plimpton’s townhouse, and he was around for the venerable founder’s dotage and death. By Mr. Howe’s account, it wasn’t clear how The Review would survive post-Plimpton, or even that it would live on at all. Maybe that doesn’t count as the risk Mr. Howe was after, but for the country’s premier literary journal, it’s not nothing.
At one point, inevitably, Mr. Howe compares his two workplaces. “In a funny way, The Paris Review is like a deli,” he writes. “It’s a throwback, an institution that doesn’t quite fit in the modern world. It’s not big or corporate. It doesn’t have a lot of swagger or muscle.”
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.