The cast of Nami Mun’s first novel is mostly tough-talking, drug-shooting, street-hustling teenage runaways in the 1980s Bronx. But you will find no doomed glamour or punk sound track here—just vulnerable, lost children, any of whom would love to go home, if there was a home that wanted them back. It’s entirely fitting, then, that the cover shows a miniature image of the square, low Bronx skyline at dusk, the buildings huddled under a vast, icy blue sky, with the tiny orange windows of tower blocks hinting at the presence of warmth inside. Joon and Knowledge, the narrator and her best friend, are getting ready to “bust out” of an unlocked shelter as the story begins. “Over the speakers, dinner was being announced.” The promise Joon had made—to back up her best friend, no matter what—trumps the promise of a hot dinner. The shelter staff barely bats an eye at their escape, wearily reminding them that if they leave, they won’t be allowed back in out of the freezing December night.
A fourteen-year-old immigrant from South Korea, Joon is on the streets because her parents have both completely unraveled. Her father, deep in debt, disappears for long stretches. Her mother disappears as well— into mental illness. “All life had been scooped out of her once-full cheeks, and her hands… were nothing more than bundles of kindling.” Mun avoids clear answers and obvious villains. Self-destruction and violence, no matter how upsetting, start to seem like reasonable responses to a cold world.
Joon works as a bar hostess, an Avon lady, and (in a clear homage to Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son) a nursing-home orderly. Joon’s willingness to fistfight, steal, live in squats, and shoot heroin never masks her quiet, lonely vulnerability. The unnamed narrator of Johnson’s book—another wide-eyed, drug-addled kid looking for redemption in the gutter—hovers over Mun’s Bronx like a patron saint. Joon meets an angel on a bus. She tells her sins to a confessor who listens through a locked tenement door. She seeks grace among the halt and lame of the nursing home. The homage comes close to imitation, at times. But it’s still beautiful.
When Mun widens her gaze from street kids to a larger world of lonely people—showing that it isn’t just Joon but almost everyone she encounters who is also flailing and adrift—she illuminates a side of American life one is not likely to see elsewhere. Joon’s immigrant family has tried to leave its problems behind, but instead it brought them to a new and unforgiving place. In one devastating passage, Joon calls her father only to listen to him plead, “I’m begging you… I’ll give you everything I have.” He thinks it’s a loan shark. It doesn’t occur to him that the presence on the line might be his daughter.
Nami Mun does many things extremely well, and one of those is forcing the reader to feel the bone-chilling cold of having nowhere to go. Joon and her friends huddle together out of necessity, not love. No one can expect courtesy or loyalty in this new world. When a Korean store owner catches her stealing, she pretends not to understand what he’s saying. “‘What? Speak English, man!’ I shouted and turned to my audience. ‘You’re in America now.’” And in America, for good or ill, you’re on your own.
Format: 304 pp., cloth; Size: 5″ x 7″; Price: $21.95; Publisher: Riverhead; Editor: Megan Lynch; Print run: 35,000; Cover design: Evan Gaffney; Interior design: Claire Naylon Vaccaro; Typeface: Fairfield; Three former jobs held by Nami Mun: Avon lady, dance hostess, street vendor; Three jobs held by the novel’s main character, Joon: Avon lady, dance hostess, street vendor; Representative passage: “The only word he’d said in English was ‘excuses,’ as if to blame his weakness on America. The Pop Rocks were now bombing my stomach and a string of anti biotics shot up my throat.”