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A Review of Leonard Chang’s Triplines: An Autobiographical Novel
(Black Heron Press, 2014).
by Stephen Hong
Leonard Chang’s newest offering sees him explore the form of the autobiographical novel in Triplines. The tone and ambience produced by this novel is not entirely unlike Chang’s social realist fictions Crossings and Fruit ’N Food, his previous and his first publications respectively. In between those two novels, Chang penned detective fiction (Over the Shoulder, Underkill, Fade to Clear, which are all part of the Allen Choice series, and the stand-alone Dispatches from the Cold). The autobiographical novel is always an interesting aesthetic choice because it immediately puts the reader on a kind of notice, especially as he or she attempts to discern what might be fabricated and what might be most authentic. In the acknowledgments that follow the novel, it is clear that Chang consulted some family members in order to corroborate accounts depicted.
Chang also chooses an interesting discursive mode, as the entire novel is narrated from a kind of retrospective third person storyteller. In this sense, Chang promotes the divide between author and the fictional storyteller, as well as the author and protagonist. Lenny, our ostensible hero, is a young adolescent, with on older brother, Ed (about to graduate from high school) and a younger sister Mira. His mother Umee suffers harassment and domestic violence from their alcoholic father Yul. For the most part, Lenny, Mira, and Ed do not suffer the same kind of physical assaults, but nevertheless Yul stands as an ominous storm cloud constantly raining on their lives. Yul and Umee at first run a novelty-type store (called Sweet ’N Gifts, reminding us of his first novel’s title), but it eventually goes out of business. The failure of the business ultimately increases tension in the family; each child chooses to deal with the situation in their own ways. Ed maintains physical and emotional distance from the family, rarely staying at home. Mira remains introverted and artistic, constantly writing, reading, or playing music, while Lenny languishes in his own attempt to move toward what we might call Asian American manhood, trying to find his sense of self beyond his domineering father. Lenny, for instance, finds great interest in martial arts, which becomes a compelling outlet for the physical trials he suffers under Yul, who attempts to push him to become more hardened. Later, Lenny sees the opportunity of being a kind of gopher for a pot dealer as a quick means to achieve some financial capital. But, the clear talent that Lenny develops and the way that he survives is through his skills of observation, something that he will later put to excellent use as a writer.
The character that perhaps undergoes the greatest change is Umee, who begins the novel as a battered housewife, but over the course of the plotting initiates a search into a new career and, by the conclusion, stands up to her husband and achieves independence from him. There is a poetic quality to this work, one reminiscent of the sparer writing style Chang employed in his first novel. What emerges from this portrait of a dysfunctional Asian American/ Korean immigrant family is a reminder of the fallacy of the model minority myth. Underlying this novel is an interesting kind of secular spirituality, which appears through the constant ways in which Mira and Lenny find refuge in a church across the street, which they break into after hours and find a sense of peace, a break from the constant fighting occurring between their parents. Without a false sense of sentimentality, Chang’s Triplines is a highly compelling read. The novel further resonates quite well within the “dysfunctional” Asian American family plots that appear in works such as Akhil Sharma’s Family Life and Lan Samantha Chang’s Hunger.
“Triplines is a remarkable journey of a boy’s maturation and winning coming-of-age novel from an author who is best nown for his crime noir stories. The change in genre is a surprising change for Leonard Chang. Triplines is autobiographical, seen through two perspectives: a young Lenny Chang and an older Chang who looks back at how the legacy of his violent father still haunts his life.
“As in his past writings, Chang continues to explore the Korean American experience. He also goes back in time to a different location, the Korean immigrant sections of Long Island. He explores the immigrant experience, the presence of racism in both the white and Korean communities, the experiences in a dysfunctional family, school bullying, and the pursuit of the American dream….
“Usually a loner, Lenny meets Sal, a small-time dealer… Sal offers Lenny money to grow and tend a patch of marijuana. The incentive is a large sum of cash, but Lenny gets intrigued by the care and tending of the illegal plants. As the plants get taller in the summer, they set up homemade triplines to track whether anyone, including the police, come around….
“The book title suggests an actual and psychological ‘trigger effect.’ Remniscent of the triplines Lenny and Sal install in their marijuana field, his father’s unpredictable violence was the emotional tripline the author dealt with every day of his youth. Lenny, as an adult, triggers his own recollection of earlier events, with greater understanding… “As an autobiographical coming-of-age novel, this is author Chang at his most introspective….”
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—Miranda Doyle, Lake Oswego School District, OR
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As an e-book:
From your local indie store:
Thanks very much,
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Triplines 9781936364091 Black Heron Press
* Starred Review
Lenny Chang’s life is on the brink of major changes. In the fall, he will enter junior high, and his older brother Ed is graduating from high school and plans to go to California for the summer before college, effectively leaving home. This puts Lenny in the spotlight of his violently alcoholic father’s attention. Aside from his little sister Mira, whom he tries to protect, Lenny doesn’t have many friends, spending his free time watching kung fu movies and teaching himself tae kwon do. But when he takes up with an older boy in the neighborhood, helping him grow marijuana, Lenny’s world begins to expand. At the same time, his mother has finally had enough of his abusive father and files for divorce.
VERDICT For his seventh novel, Chang (“Fade to Clear”) draws on his childhood (the author calls this work an “autobiographical novel”). It is an unflinching and finely rendered portrait of a second-generation Korean American boy’s life. Recommended particularly for readers interested in the Asian immigrant experience and anyone who loves crisp writing and a compelling coming-of-age story.
—Nancy H. Fontaine, Norwich P.L., VT Copyright 2014 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission. Library Journal (06/15/2014)
Okay, this one is for all you guys who like to poke around in the corners of the sets as much as I do. Dave Blass and his production crew have an annual tradition of posting a booklet of their work, and it’s time for The Design of Justified Season 5. If you want a little more commentary with that, though, here’s the one you don’t want to miss: the “For Your Consideration” Season 5 Emmy packet.
“An amazing amount of detail for a set to be used in only one scene,” is the caption for the Everglades diner, but show me one of these sets where that doesn’t apply. Miami, Detroit, Memphis, Lexington, even Mexico— especially Harlan. These guys do their homework, and as far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as appreciating that too much.
Here’s the latest advance review, from Publishers Weekly:
Touted as an “autobiographical novel,” this first-rate coming-of-age story is the seventh novel from Chang (Crossings). Eleven-year-old Lenny lives with his dysfunctional Korean family in the rail commuter town of Merrick on Long Island. Lenny’s “alcoholic” and “wife-beater” father, Yul, is a former member of the South Korean Navy and now a computer programmer who teaches Lenny judo moves when they’re not quarreling and fighting. Lenny’s religious mother, Umee, runs an unprofitable candy store when she isn’t trying to shield Lenny along with his older brother, Ed, and younger sister, Mira from Yul’s drunken physical abuses. Lenny excels in the martial arts well enough to defend Mira and himself from the neighborhood bully Frankie. Umee has a thyroid operation, and the financially-strapped Changs shut down the candy store before Yul buys a junker Cadillac as a prestige symbol. Lenny’s growing up takes a large step forward when he befriends an older kid named Sal who secretly raises marijuana plants. He brings Lenny into the lucrative pot dealing business and teaches him how to set a “trip line” to guard his money crop. The Changs’ domestic situation worsens after Umee invites her mother, Uhma, to come from South Korea and help Umee run the household. In Chang’s sensitive narrative, Umee finds the fortitude to take the necessary steps to save her family during what the author views as the pivotal year of his life. (June)
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Just wanted to send along a big and heartfelt thank you to everyone who watched the recently completely season 5 of Justified. All of us on the Justified team are extremely appreciative of the fans, the tweeters, bloggers, and of course the dedicated viewers.
We’re going to take a little break before reconvening for the final season, but thanks again.
In the meantime, I’ll be slowly prepping for the publication of my new novel, due out this June. Here’s the Amazon link:
I’ll be posting reviews and links here. One draft of a review just came through, to be published in a month or so, but here’s a piece of it (subject to editing changes for publication):
"TRIPLINES is a remarkable journey of a boy’s maturation and a winning coming-of-age novel from an author who is best known for his crime noir stories…. A surprising change for this author… this is Chang at his most introspective…"
- Bill Drucker, Korean Quarterly
Thanks very much,
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