Family is wonderful - from a distance

Jerry Battle wanted to soar away from everyone, but something pulled him back down to earth

It's early yet, and the fall season will certainly bring some wonderful novels, but it seems safe to say that "Aloft" will be one of the best books of the year. Given the beauty of Chang-rae Lee's previous work, this isn't too surprising. In 1999, "A Gesture Life" appeared on many "best of the year" lists (including ours). Before that, his first novel, "Native Speaker" (1995), won several of those second-tier prizes that sometimes signal a great talent has entered the library.

Although the Korean-born author has written specifically about the Asian-American experience, Lee's audience has always been diverse, responding to his universal themes of dislocation and identity. With "Aloft," he moves even further from the outlines of his own cultural heritage, presenting a narrator who's Italian-American, a retired landscaper in an affluent suburb on Long Island.

But issues of race are still here - everywhere, in fact. The narrator, Jerry Battle (born Battaglia), notes everyone's ethnic and racial classification with the ironic self-consciousness of a white man who knows it's not kosher to note such things anymore.

He was married to a Korean woman who died 20 years ago; his Puerto Rican girlfriend has recently left him; his daughter is engaged to an Asian-American writer; he works part time with a young Hispanic man at a travel agency. In other words, Jerry is like most Americans, pretending to be colorblind in the most colorful country on earth.

Up in the sky, though, flying his little plane, he can't see anyone's face. It's a box-seat for a man who finds it easiest to appreciate people - particularly family - when gazing down on them from a "fetching, ever-mitigating" distance of 3,000 feet.

The novel opens with Jerry's Godlike pronouncement: "Everything looks perfect to me," and for the next 350 pages, he talks on and on to us in a voice that's maddeningly self-absorbed, wonderfully witty, constantly conflicted, often wise, and ultimately redeemed.

For many years, equipped with "a wide-range of people-shedding skills," Jerry has worked to secure the kind of isolation he's enjoying, but now living alone, cut off politely from his children and his father, he finds that the cup of absolute freedom has a bitter aftertaste.

He's not entirely sure why his girlfriend of 20 years walked out on him, but he suspects it may have something to do with keeping her a girlfriend for 20 years. His irascible, oversexed father is unhappily imprisoned in an expensive assisted-living facility, where Jerry has to visit only when the guilt becomes acute. His son has taken over the family landscaping business and turned it into a money machine that makes Jerry proud even while he worries "how this rush of prosperity is ruining him." And his daughter has a PhD in critical theory, which means that his hegemonic male privilege is the subject of her constant, dismissive analysis.

He backs away from moments of intimacy, even while craving them, complaining to us confidentially that "those closest to you seem to clam up at every chance of genuine kinship." How much neater, anyhow, to travel the world, sampling unencumbering moments of intimacy, leaping "to aid all manner of strangers and tourists and other wide-eyed foreigners."

Jerry thinks he'd be happy to keep soaring above all the messy and irreconcilable complications of family relationships - relying on what his daughter calls his "preternatural lazy-heartedness." But despite his best efforts, what he refers to as "the Real" keeps calling him back down to earth.

First, there's his son's new opulence, all the flourishes of suburban royalty from teak cabinetry to nickel-plated faucets, wonderfully satirized by Jerry, who suspects the business won't support such excess for long. But of course, he can't bring himself to ask how it's going (too personal), and he knows (or wants to believe) that his offer to help would be declined anyway.

More troubling, his daughter announces that she's pregnant and diagnosed with cancer. Furious about her decision to delay medical treatment until the baby arrives, he nevertheless knows that she won't listen to him even if he could summon up the equanimity to speak calmly before his frustration and her pride blew them back into silence.

His affections, though well muzzled, refuse to stay quiet, even after a lifetime of avoiding "in-depth and nuanced discussions." In one of several very funny scenes, he tracks down his girlfriend at the mansion of her fabulously wealthy new boyfriend and proposes. When she scoffs at him - "You have no clue what you're saying or what it might mean!" - he wagers his plane in a tennis match with her lover.

But "Aloft" is not really a book of scenes or events, as funny, moving, or tragic as those are. Lee's genius is this confidential voice, full of cultural analysis, ironic asides, sexual candor, and unconscious revelations, laced along through one breathless paragraph after another in improbably extended sentences, perpetually buoyed by wit and insight. He's perfectly captured the conflicted confidence of a man who knows he can be a jerk but hopes that knowing that might win him some consolation.

Strung between his father, who taught him how "effective it can be to say grindingly little at the very moment you ought to say a lot," and his children, who can't imagine how much he needs and loves them, Jerry must finally learn how to speak from the heart - to move beyond the "patriarchal Post-it Notes" - before his family collapses in a series of financial and physical disasters.

This feels like Rabbit country, of course, the anxieties of a suburban man so masterfully tended by John Updike in those four devastating novels. But Lee is after something altogether more hopeful here, though no less sophisticated: the anti-Rabbit, at least an antidote to Rabbitism.

Jerry runs from his responsibilities with no less vigor than Harry Angstrom, and he's grown just as rich, but when he comes finally to rest, it's not in death or the clouds, but in the deep satisfaction of embracing his family with all those annoyances and entangling affections he thought he wanted to flee.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail Ron Charles.

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