Review

Aloft

by Chang-rae Lee



Jerry Battle is almost 60 and semi-retired from Battle Brothers
Brick and Mortar, a company his father, who is living unhappily in
a retirement home, took great pride in. He works part-time at
Parade Travel and lives the good life in Huntington Village, a
wealthy (and mostly white) area on Long Island that is a far cry
from his Italian roots in nearby Whitestone. He has spent his
entire life skating around relationships --- his first wife Daisy
drowned in their backyard pool, and his long-time girlfriend, Rita,
leaves him after taking care of his children and waiting over 10
years for Jerry to pop the question. Kelly, Jerry's co-worker at
Parade Travel, dates him briefly and is similarly exasperated with
him.

His children also don't seem to know what to do with him. His son,
Jack, is a solid guy who is married to an All-American blonde named
Eunice, has two children and lives in a ridiculously over-decorated
house they can't quite afford. Jack is running the family business
into the ground but neglects to discuss this with Jerry directly.
Theresa, who is by far a more colorful and interesting character,
is Jerry's daughter. She is an overeducated professor, also cursed
with thinking too much, and is engaged to Paul, an Asian-American
poet who has a serious case of writer's block. Theresa calls her
father by his first name and adamantly refuses treatment when she
finds out she is simultaneously pregnant and has cancer.

All of this is compounded by the fact that Jerry unintentionally
befriends strangers --- such as the couple who sell him his
airplane --- but is removed from those he loves the most. Truth be
told, everyone thinks Jerry is lazy and aloof. He ruminates about
all the neighbors he was cordial with, all the girls he ran around
with in his youth and anyone else who might have passed his way in
60-odd years of living. Yet Jerry feels he doesn't have real
friends and tries desperately to get back together with Rita.

The novel starts off slowly. There are a lot of unnecessary details
about minor characters and it's initially hard to feel sympathy for
the protagonist. Once the conflicts of the story are presented and
Jerry decides to take some action for once, the pace quickly picks
up and doesn't dissipate. Though the story is plot-heavy and
meanders right up until the last page (pg. 343), it is immensely
readable. Whether it's a lunch celebrating Paul and Theresa's
engagement or Jerry remembering his childhood, the details are so
vivid and plentiful that the reader will relate to the Battles
immensely, even if they've never met anyone like them.

This could have easily been a novel about illness, but Lee is
nothing if not ambitious. The author of two previous, critically
acclaimed novels about Asian-Americans, Lee tackles race from the
perspective of privilege. Daisy was Asian, Jerry's children are
half-Asian, Paul is Asian and Jerry has a co-worker whom he calls
"the resident Hispanic." But by and large, everyone is white and,
true to his character, Jerry thinks about race a lot and shares
those thoughts with the reader. Not that Jerry focuses only on
people of color. He is equally baffled by women, including Kelly,
who hails from the South. Through reminiscences and dialogue, Jerry
analyzes the way men treat women without delving into a decisive
diatribe.

Chang-rae Lee could have easily (and understandably, depending on
your perspective) written a story about how badly white men treat
the rest of the world. In interviews, Lee has been quoted as saying
that he identifies with his protagonist despite the racial and age
differences (Lee is in his 30s). It shows. Lee has written a
wonderful story about an imperfect family who love each other at
the end of the day.

Reviewed by Jane Van Ingen on January 20, 2011

Aloft
by Chang-rae Lee

  • Publication Date: March 8, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover
  • ISBN-10: 1573222631
  • ISBN-13: 9781573222631