Friday, February 18, 2011

“My Korean Deli”

By Ben Ryder Howe
ISBN No. 978-0-385-66412-7

Now this – THIS – is a memoir! Forget all those whinefests about escaping the Nazis and recovering from a meth addiction, “My Korean Deli” is “The Godfather” of corner stores. The premise is right out of a TV sitcom: It all starts when Howe’s wife (the daughter of Korean immigrants) buys her Mom a convenience store. When Mom can’t keep the business going, it falls to Howe and his own Mrs. to run it. What follows is the American class struggle squared: In bleakly hilarious and yet thoughtful prose, Howe explains how he edited The Paris Review by day (alongside George Plimpton) and then sold lottery tickets and bologna by night. What makes “My Korean Deli” such a good read is that it seemingly covers all genres of entertainment. There’s the fish-out-of-water premise: At first, Howe writes, “It seems unreal to be on the other side of the checkout counter.” Then there’s the cost of doing business in a mercilessly political correct marketplace (the coffee has to be from “ecologically responsible land tenure systems in countries that provide universal pre-K-through-3 education and have no military.”). And finally, there’s the suspenseful power struggle: the threat of two new convenience stores in the same neighbourhood. It should all read like a really long magazine article but Howe turns his tiny, intimate story into an engrossing epic about the changing face of American culture.