In 1995, Korean American novelist Chang-rae Lee made an acclaimed debut on the American literary scene with his brilliantly conceived and elegantly executed prizewinning book Native Speaker. In 2000, Lee proved that his initial success was no fluke with his even more subtle and gripping second novel, A Gesture Life. The protagonists of both books were, like Lee, Asian Americans of Korean ethnicity, and with such subjects Lee has amply demonstrated his artistic skill and psychological penetration. In Aloft, Lee's third novel, this same combination of craft and perceptiveness is applied with an equal measure of subtlety and success upon a protagonist-narrator who is an Italian American (like Lee's own father-in-law).
The novel's title, Aloft, derives from the pastime of its protagonist-narrator, Jerry Battle (originally Battaglia), whose hobby is flying his Cessna Skyhawk on clear days over the Northeastern United States. Lee has made this hobby an indicator of his protagonist's character. Jerry is a fair-weather flyer who avoids the bumps of inclemency and the worries of fog. In this respect, Lee contrasts the comfort-seeking Jerry with the risk-taking Sir Harold Clarkson-Ickes, a multimillionaire British balloonist attempting to circumnavigate the globe, whose adventure Jerry follows intently and comfortably on television. Jerry also prefers to fly solo (a solipsistic if not an egoistic preference), although he sometimes takes his mistress along to lunch on lobster in Maine before returning home to Long Island for a gourmet dinner and good sex.
If Jerry is not exactly a selfish sybarite, he does seem to take the pursuit of happiness as his particularly divine American right. Jerry's hobby of taking flight is symptomatic of his desire to escape the trammels of reality; as he rationalizes it, it is “transcendentally life-affirming.” Aloft in flight, Jerry is above the imperfections of terrestrial reality; hence the novel opens by proclaiming, “From up here, half a mile above Earth, everything looks perfect to me…. From up here, all the trees seem ideally formed and arranged, as if fretted over and over again by a persnickety florist god.” Resonating with the final image is the fact that Jerry was a landscaper by profession, working to make natural reality more pleasant to the human eye. His part-time job in retirement is that of a travel agent, arranging travel packages for tourists who derive pleasure from gazing at the quaint squalor of natives without soiling themselves with indigenous realities and who enjoy contacts with “other” exotic cultures through the safe, prophylactic windshields of tour buses.
It is in this most laudably American mode of pursuing happiness that Jerry has lived his less than selfless life. (Lee very subtly makes it impossible to term Jerry selfish.) At the age of fifty-nine, Jerry is already retired from having successfully managed a landscaping business on Long Island. Still sound of mind and body, he indulges his fondness for flying and keeps active as a part-time travel agent. Jerry had married a stunningly attractive Korean woman, Daisy, with whom he had two children before she drowned, accidentally, it seems, in the family swimming pool. A short time after this death, Jerry had the good fortune to acquire an equally attractive mistress, Rita, a Puerto Rican nurse who lived with him for twenty years and mothered his children, cooked gourmet meals, and solaced his widower's bed.
When the novel opens, the children are grown up, successfully college-educated, and launched upon their careers. Jerry's son, Jack, has taken over the family business, which he dreams of turning into a Wall Street wonder resembling the Home Depot chain of stores. Jack's wife, Eunice, mothers their two children and entertains with expensive good taste. Jerry's daughter, Theresa, teaches college English, and her intellectually theorized critiques of her father are facilely dismissed by Jerry although he is residually troubled by them. Theresa is married to a failing Korean American writer of esoterica. Jerry's widower father, Hank (the “Tank”) Battle, has many of the uncomfortable rough edges of the self-made working-class man, but Jerry has relegated him conveniently to a nursing home. Such is Jerry's more or less pain-free life situation at the commencement of the novel.
Despite Jerry's best efforts to stay aloft and aloof from life's trammels, several bumps have come, and will continue to come, his way. It is through the manner with which Jerry deals with these vicissitudes that he gains respect in the reader's mind and, eventually, a greater measure of humanity for himself. His long-time mistress, Rita, who has...