I’d had this memoir on my “to-read” list for a long time, and when a patron recently returned it to the library I bumped it to the top.It’s funny and thoughtful and well written. In some ways, the story of Howe trying to assimilate in his Korean American in-laws’ home, where he and his wife have moved in to save money, is relatable. Who hasn’t struggled with career and family choices, wondered about going for a dream (deli ownership in their case), versus playing it safe? Who hasn’t tried to understand their in-laws, or seen their spouse in a new light in their parents’ home?
In other ways, his story is too foreign to seem real. For non-New Yorkers, or as Howe points out even for those who live there, New York is a strange place. Most of us don’t have a mother-in-law feeding our spouse something called “deer juice” nor a parade of relatives arriving, sometimes right in our own bedrooms, at any time. Most of us don’t have the loans, cash, guts, or know-how to start a business. And certainly most of us do not get a dream job as editor at The Paris Review in the George Plimpton era, when editors take “extended absences for the sake of skiing or finishing a novel.”
Howe writes about himself as a sort of misfit, a Brahmin who can never stop being uptight, an odd man out. He writes with good humor and colorful detail. The chapters about his in-laws and the incredible changes they’ve witnessed in their lifetimes in Korea and as immigrants were fascinating. And the inner workings of the deli, the suppliers, and the irrepressible Dwayne, known as “preach” in the neighborhood, their larger than life employee and friend, those were fascinating too.
But it was hard to empathize with Howe. Despite a few setbacks, you just get the feeling he’s led a charmed life and that eroded any suspense. This man would always land on his feet, probably while wearing excellent shoes.
I felt the end of the book tried too hard to wrap things up. The final chapter opens with “It’s been six years since we sold the deli . . .” and then rushes through the resolution of a few hundred pages in just a few more. I like a book that leads readers to their own conclusions, and Howe gets a little heavy-handed with the self-analysis. But overall My Korean Deli is an interesting book, and gave me new respect for how hard it is to run a convenience store.