Starting a small business is an exhilarating and stressful endeavor, and Ben Ryder Howe takes us along for the bumpy ride in his witty memoir, My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store.
The book is a chronicle of Howe’s adventures – and misadventures – in retail, and it begins with an improbable quest.
Howe, then an editor at The Paris Review, is looking to buy a New York City deli. His wife, an attorney, quits her job so she can run the deli, and the couple invests all their savings in the business venture.
All this is done in the spirit of atonement. Howe’s wife Gab, the daughter of Korean immigrants, believes she owes her parents for their self-sacrifice, so she gives them the convenience store as a gift.
This guilt-ridden enterprise is ripe with comedic potential, and Howe capitalizes on it. His book is chock-full of jokes, mostly of the self-deprecating variety. The following passage is typical:
“Gab’s family seems comfortable banging from decision to decision, but I’m more circumspect. I come from an academic family, and we like to think things through – then think about whether the process of thinking them through was as thorough as it could be, then write a book about it. (A book that takes twenty years.)”
The real fun begins when the deli opens. Howe continues to work at The Paris Review and the deli becomes his night job. Both enterprises flounder.
To his credit, Howe admits that he deserves some of the blame for both of these failures. He confesses to many bad decisions, including one that forced The Paris Review to halt publishing an anthology. But, rather than despair, Howe finds something amusing about the absurdity of these situations, and his cheerful spirit is infectious. In one of the funniest moments in the memoir, Howe describes his impulsive purchase of gourmet food for the deli – a poor decision given the mostly down-market nature of his clientele.
Howe's humility makes him a very appealing narrator. He may be an egghead, but he’s not the sort that looks down on blue-collar work. Rather than recycling the tired idea that retail work is soul-sucking, he finds beauty in the endeavor, and even “a transcendent moment or two,” as he puts it.
His retail narrative is surprisingly philosophical – in a good way. Never stilted, Howe’s introspections use simple language to thoughtfully touch upon a spectrum of complex issues, such as personal identity, family relationships, and culture clashes.
Thankfully, Howe doesn’t settle for pat answers to existential questions. With abundant humor and humanity, Howe ponders the direction of his life as he decides whether to raise a family and how to continue his career as a writer.
These musings are embedded in a narrative full of delightful surprises, mostly in the form of entertaining anecdotes. Howe has quirky stories about seemingly everything in a convenience store – whether it’s customers, coffee machines, or bathrooms – and, at his best, he delivers these tales like a stand-up comedian.
The vignettes’ lovable stars include deli employee Dwayne, an armed and dangerous sandwich connoisseur; George (Plimpton), an elderly editor with a boyish charm; and Kay, who doubles as Energizer-Bunny and mother-in-law.
However, the book is not without flaws, and there is a problem with its dramatic arc. At the risk of spoiling an important plot point, I'll just say that, although Howe’s memoir is dedicated to Dwayne, the final scene with this character feels rushed. Without his usual flair for reflection, Howe tells us what happened without fully exploring the emotional consequences of that event.
Because of this, the reader may finish the book feeling that something important is missing. Perhaps the writer found the topic painful to discuss, but he needed to work through his feelings on the page for the reader to achieve catharsis.
Nevertheless, "My Korean Deli" is worth reading not only because of its humor but also because of its skillful use of language. Howe has an eye for detail and a talent for colorful description, and these twin talents allow him to make the ordinary feel magical. For example, after reading the following passage, I will never see cashiers the same way again:
“Kay’s register technique is dazzling.... When she stops you can hear a penny roll, and you almost expect the Royal Alpha to let out an exhausted sigh.”
That poeticism, in combination with impeccable comedic timing, adds depth to a tale that could easily have relied on stereotype or crass humor. Like many memoirs, "My Korean Deli" is about its writer, and Howe’s charming personality ensures that his reader is never bored.
Ilana Kowarski is a Monitor contributor.