Survival in the Suburbs

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Novelists right now are kind of like French painters in the 19th century. Back then you had your ultra-smooth academic perfectionists — your Ingres, your David — on one side, painting pictures so slick, they look as if they have been freshly buffed and polyurethaned. Then along came the Impressionists, with their rough-textured, gnarly, worked-looking canvases. Among contemporary fiction writers we have purveyors of lapidary, polished, M.F.A.-perfect prose — John Updike, Alice Munro — and on the other side, a grab bag of avant-gardists (like David Foster Wallace), witty pyrotechnicians (Jonathan Franzen) and operatic monologists (Toni Morrison) who fling words upon the page in heavy, meaningful daubs. Now, just as they did back then, it's the second bunch who get to sit at the cool kids' table.

Polish has its place, however, and Chang-rae Lee's majestic, moving novel Aloft (Riverhead; 343 pages) reminds us why. The hero of Aloft is Jerry Battle: 59, semi-retired after a long and successful career as a landscaper, with money to burn and the world on a string. Jerry works part time at a travel agency, but just to keep busy. His handsome son runs the family business; his lovely daughter is getting married. For kicks he takes his little three-seater Cessna up to fly around in circles over suburban Long Island. Life is swell.

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But dark forces are at work around and within Jerry — death and sadness and anger — forces that he's not quite able to acknowledge directly; it's as if they're happening in the corner of his eye, just beyond the spectrum of the visible. His son Jack is barely keeping the company together. His daughter Theresa is fighting non-Hodgkins lymphoma. His dad is in a nursing home and miserable there. His last girlfriend, the foxy Rita, left him a year ago, and he's not quite as over it as he'd like to think. Nor, come to think of it, has he ever really dealt with the madness and accidental (or maybe not) death of his wife Daisy.

The further we read in Aloft the more we get the feeling that the superficially omnicompetent Jerry is totally unequipped to deal with pain — his own, he represses; that of others, he ignores. There's not an unkind bone in his body, but he's deeply passive and just wants everybody to pretend things are fine, and the fact that he can call himself on it isn't helping him change. "I'm one to leap up from the mat to aid all manner of strangers and tourists and other wide-eyed foreigners," he admits, "but when it comes to loved ones and family I can hardly ungear myself from the La-Z-Boy, and want only succor and happy sufferance in return." The only place he feels truly at peace is in the air, where "all the trees seem ideally formed and arranged, as if fretted over by a persnickety florist god." But the thing about flying is, eventually you have to land.

As metaphors go, it's almost too pat to build a book around, but Lee gets a lot of power out of it, and the airy, appealing innocence of Jerry's voice buoys the novel whenever it's in danger of sinking. As Aloft follows Jerry through his daily rounds and bemused reminiscences, you're gently lulled into a sense of suburban security by his good-humored apercus, until — bam!--the scariness of life surges into view like water from a ruptured main: a miserable ex-girlfriend pops a fistful of OxyContin, or someone chokes on a turkey bone, or a memory surfaces unbidden of a cop bringing Daisy home in the middle of the night because she has been prowling the elementary school playground naked but for a pair of white Keds.

Jerry's landscaping business is probably the best metaphor for what Aloft is about: he's a professional smoother-over of things, a burier of hatchets and skeletons and whatever else would look prettier covered by a manicured lawn or a bluestone patio or a Har-Tru tennis court. Of course, Lee isn't the first to point out that the suburbs hide uncharted depths of misery and discontentment — Updike, Rick Moody and John Cheever, among many others, have been here before. But Lee's portrait feels somehow more up-to-date than anything else out there, complete with postboom McMansions that take up all but a fringe of their .47-acre lots. Never mind that Jerry, a landscaping contractor, thinks in better prose than most English professors write — come on, give Lee some room to play in, he'll make it up to you. The glossy flawlessness of Lee's prose is itself a metaphor, a symbol of the superficial perfection of America's suburban splendor. Even though you can barely see the fault lines and stress fractures just below the surface, somehow it makes you feel them that much more keenly.