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My Year Abroad

by Chang-rae Lee

My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee X
My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Feb 2021, 496 pages
    Feb 1, 2022, 496 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Elisabeth Cook
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About this Book

Print Excerpt


I won't say where I am in this greatish country of ours, as that could be dicey for Val and her XL little boy, Victor Jr., but it's a place like most others, nothing too awful or uncomfortable, with no enduring vistas or distinctive traditions to admire, no funny accents or habits of the locals to wonder at or find repellent. Call it whatever you like, but I'll refer to it as Stagno, for while it's definitely landlocked here, several bodies of murky water dot the area. There's a way that the days here curdle like the gunge that collects on the surface of a simmering broth, gunge you must constantly gunge away.

Still, Stagno serves its purpose. It's so ordinary that no one too special would ever choose to live here, though well populated enough that Val and Victor Jr. and I don't stand out. And we ought to stand out. For it would be natural to ask what a college-age kid was doing shacked up with a thirtysomething mom and her eight-year-old son, and why neither of us worked a job, or why the boy didn't go off to school. Do we ever leave the house? For a brief period, we did, but not much anymore. We stream movies and shows. Val is ordering everything online again, including groceries, the only item she regularly ventures out for being a grease-soaked foot-long hoagie named the Widowmaker that is the carrot for Victor Jr. when he reaches his daily tolerance for our homeschooling. There is no stick. Val handles social studies and arts and I cover math and science, but all in all we get a C+ for conception, execution, and effort, which Victor Jr. is well aware of and is undoubtedly banking on using against his mother someday. He's an exceedingly smart, cute kid, if notably hirsute, something genetically cross-wired for sure because a kid his age shouldn't have arm and leg and back hair and definitely not the downy mustache, the nap of which the boy caresses whenever he's noodling his human child's plight.

In the future Victor Jr. may strategically deploy my name, but we still can't predict the full extent of my presence in his life. What we know is this: Val and I have a good thing going. We try to see our roles as limited in scope and intensity. We aren't aspiring to all-time greatness, whether in homeschooling or partnering. We aren't each other's stand-ins for the world-as-it-should-be. My stated obligations to Val are to treat Victor Jr. better than the sometimes unruly pupster that he is, and to be, as she says, her reliably uberant fuck buddy (ex- and prot-), and finally to pick up around this cramped exurban house so it doesn't get too skanky. In return, I have her excellent company and a place to stash myself for however long we mutually wish. I require nothing of her at all, except that she not ask after my family, or what I was doing before I met her several months ago, or why my only possessions were the very clothes I was wearing, a very small Japanese-made folding knife, and a dark brushed-metal ATM card that until recently magically summoned cash every time I used it.

I know something about Val because she basically told me her recent life story right after we first met in a food court of the Hong Kong International Airport. She was ahead of me in line with Victor Jr., who was as usual gaming on his handheld, and found that her credit cards weren't working and had no cash. When the boy heard this he immediately started wailing about the depth of his hunger, which I have come to know as bottomless. My impulse was to jam a duty-free baton of Toblerone between his oddly super-tiny teeth. But Val, even with her laughing, narrow eyes, the kind certain Asian girls can have, with that wonderful hint of an upward lilt and dark sparkle when they gaze at you that says in a most generous way, Really?, looked like she wanted to don a crown of thorns and climb atop a Viking pyre, so without a beat I paid for their food and was heading off with my own steamer basket of xiaolongbao when she asked if she could meet my parents to say what a gallant young man I was. She actually used the word gallant. When I told her I was solo she hooked my elbow and plunked us down at a table. While her son destroyed his mound of hot and dry Wuhan noodles, Val began telling me she was kind of solo, too, not counting Victor Jr., and then casually mentioned how her husband Victor Sr. was disappeared and probably dead. Maybe because I was freshly adrift myself, smashed to raw bits by circumstances too peculiar to recount, I matched her nonchalance and asked if he was in a kinder place. Something fell away from her wide, sweet face and she proceeded to tell me how some months earlier she had detailed for federal agents every last facet of her husband's dealings with a gang of New Jersey-based Tashkentians that involved Mongolian mineral rights, faux sturgeon eggs, and very real shoulder-mounted rocket launchers, which were supposedly part of an ISIS-offshoot-offshoot's plan to enrich themselves and arm potential client cells in Western Europe. All this was substantial enough to predicate Victor Sr. 's sudden absence from this life and worth a witness protection setup for Val when they got back to the States, a good deal considering she was the legal co-owner of her husband's trading business and faced money laundering and tax evasion charges plus the prospect of having to give up her dear little Victor to foster care.

Excerpted from My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee. Copyright © 2021 by Chang-rae Lee. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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