Reading Note:
My Korean Deli
by Ben Ryder Howe

Ben Ryder Howe packs his memoir, My Korean Deli: Risking It All For a Convenience Store, with a double whammy. There is the up-front story indicated in the title. An underachieving egghead is roped into running a convenience store in Brooklyn that his Korean-American wife, a successful but burned out corporate lawyer, buys as a way of “giving back” to her mother, a formidable can-do lady by the unlikely name of Kay. Our hero is thereby taken completely out of his element.

Monday is always the worst day at the store. No one buys anything. They stay at home eating leftovers, I guess, of maybe they dine out, or maybe they just starve themselves. It’s one of the mysteries of the convenience store business, like the phenomenon of customer waves, whereby the store goes completely dead for a few minutes — you can hear the cockroaches scurrying — and then all of a sudden twenty customers walk in at the same time, as if they’d been conspiring outside on the sidewalk, huddling in the manner of a football tgeam, with formations and schemes and plans of attack to makee sure that not one night will ever go buy when I do not commit a huge pressure-induced mistake.

This is a familiar story,  although one that Howe tells extremely well. A clueless WASP is thrown into an exotic milieu in which little of his extensive training for life among the entitled is of any use.  The ghost of Evelyn Waugh smiles over this sort of story, and by attending to his example (the stark display of humiliation in clear but understated prose; plenty of nasty surprises; the conviction that life is more ridiculous than tragic), a talented and persevering writer can be sure of producing a good read. Howe does the job about as well as it has ever been done. My Korean Deli is as hugely entertaining as any funny book, fact or fiction, that I can think of.

But there is another story here, and if its appeal is much narrower than the one in the foreground, the readers to whom it will appeal are the readers who care about literary distinction. Howe is wise not to tell it at any length; rather, he slips in occasional sketches of illustrative scenes. George Plimpton, late founder and editor of The Paris Review, appears in each of these sketches, at least until he dies in his sleep. Howe was a senior editor at The Paris Review during Plimpton’s last years, and it is clear from what he tells us that it would not have been difficult to whip up a Waughian spoof of the enterprise. Here is Plimpton addressing his staff after a fall, tacitly pointing out that the Review will be in a pickle without him.

The staff nods. We’ve hear this speech before. After the bus-on-York-Avenue scenario — in case that wasn’t vivid enough — he’d come up with a half-dozen more. (“I could be crushed by a falling bridge. I could fall into the polar bear den at the Central Park Zoo. I could be mortally wounded in a freak trampoline accident.”) Talking this way revealed that even George worried about death and, in particular, the future, which is only natural in a seventy-five-year-old. It wasn’t quite as morbid as it sounds, however: part of him, the bon vivant, the seeker of fun, clearly looked forward to adding death to his repertoire of experiences and the stories he would be able to tell about it afterward.

You have to read this twice to appreciate the sting. Plimpton is already a figure of fun — likeable but a bit fatuous — without the snark about his repertoire of experiences; and yet you suspect that Howe is absolutely right; it takes the place, in a more interesting way, of planning one’s own funeral. The remark skewers Plimpton — but with a silver spear.

Even better is a frightful encounter at a publicity party. Howe has screwed up, in a sort-of way, and the mistake is going to cost the magazine $10,000 — very big money on the Review‘s shoestring budget. Howe is advised to stand back while a colleague tells Plimpton what has happened.

Luckily, the balcony is where the bar is. After downing two quick cocktails, I watch as Elizabeth gradually works her way through the library’s vaulted hall and snags George’s attention. He seems delighted to see her — Ha! He’s in a good mood. He listens intently, eyes narrowed, not saying a word as Elizabeth lays out the situation. Then his face seems to darken, and his features seem to elongate, and before my eyes George morphs into a grotesque hawklike bird with a fierce brow and an angry beak. Oh dear. He’s scanning the room for a face — mine, presumably; Elizabeth must have told him I’m here — and it occurs to me that I shouldn’t be spying on him like this. I look again: that angry beak is now mouthing the words (I can see it clearly from across the room) “Where is he? WHERE IS HE? I want to talk to him now.”

This is a view of the affable amateur that hasn’t been widely seen — but it is part of a considered, humane, and even compassionate deconstruction of the literary playboy. Later, Plimpton will confess to Howe that he worries about being a fraud, because he actually hates performing in front of other people; his famously easygoing charm is an act, not insincere so much as professional. (Presumably, these misgivings explain why Plimpton died without completing his own memoirs.) Howe has opened himself to the charge of score-settling, but I’m persuaded to take a more charitable view.

Autobiographically, My Korean Deli tells a story of Bildung by attrition. “First came the disassembly of the self, the softening up of an already tenuous psyche. Then came exposure to values … that were the opposite of those I grew up with.” The result is a confident father who has arrived at manhood without the benefit of signs and wonders. There is a point at which Howe could easily have connected The Paris Review to the other things that he needed to outgrow, but I think that he’s too generous to do that. He is frank about losing his editing job along with all the other survivors of the Plimpton régime; wisdom accrued behind the counter of a mini-mart at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Hoyt Street (easily found with Google maps, by the way) did nothing to prompt his departure from the magazine. But he clearly sees the improvisational nature of George Plimpton’s operating system as the byproduct of arrested development. Perhaps the point will be made more explicitly in the movie adaptation, which I hope is already in the works. One with plenty of voice-over narration taken straight from Howe’s splendid prose.