March 12, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST


Current Status
In Season
Chang-rae Lee
We gave it a B+

In 1995, investment banker-turned-novelist Chang-rae Lee made his dazzling debut with ”Native Speaker,” the cool, vivid portrait of a young Korean American caught between cultures. Unlike the usual ultraearnest immigrant narrative, ”Native Speaker” used a twisty, complex plot to dramatize the tricky process of assimilation. Four years later, in his lovely, eerie, and widely acclaimed second act, Lee took off in another direction entirely: ”A Gesture Life” told the sad, delicate tale of an elderly Japanese-American Everyman harboring tragic secrets. Now, to cement his reputation as one of our most versatile writers, Lee has produced Aloft, an accomplished, easygoing, gorgeously written, near-miss masterpiece about a middle-aged Italian-American retiree on New York’s Long Island.

At 59, narrator Jerry Battle (shortened from Battaglia) has left the family landscaping business and spends his days floating over the suburbs in his Skyhawk plane. Aloft is where he likes to be, as he never has to see ”the pedestrian, sea-level flotsam that surely blemishes our good scene, the casually tossed super-size Slurpies and grubby confetti of a million cigarette butts, the ever-creeping sidewalk mosses and weeds…” (Most retired landscapers don’t use language this way, but never mind.)

The need for staying above it all has damaged his personal relationships. Widowed since his 30s, when his crazy wife drowned herself in the swimming pool, he has just been dumped by his longtime girlfriend, a saintly, sexy Puerto Rican nurse named Rita. A good portion of the novel’s plot — and some of its funniest scenes — are devoted to Jerry’s efforts to win her back from the rich, predatory goat of a lawyer she’s begun dating.

Meanwhile, Jerry’s grown daughter, Theresa, and her fiancé, a genial, ineffectual Korean-American novelist (”I guess if you put a gun to my head I’d say he writes about The Problem with Being Sort of Himself”), confront a severe medical crisis.

Jerry’s other child, Jack — ”He’s never been what anybody would call a brainy kid” — faces his own problem: He seems to be running the family business into the ground. Jack shares a bloated McMansion with his acquisitive wife, Eunice, and their two children — preschool zombies first introduced as they gawk at Britney Spears on the wide-screen TV.

Like Richard Ford’s ”The Sportswriter” or Richard Russo’s ”Straight Man,” this wry, meditative novel relies entirely on Jerry’s voice to bring alive a wide cast of characters and push the haphazard plot forward. Yet while Jerry keeps the action moving at an admirable clip, he has more trouble breathing life into the people around him, especially those he purports to care about the most. Eunice remains an egregious stereotype of a shallow blond housewife, and even Jack feels insubstantial. None of this makes the book any less sparkling or readable, but it does keep ”Aloft” from soaring to the heights that Lee’s great talent might have taken it.

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