"Yellow: Stories"by Don Lee 255 pp W.W. Norton & Company, New York
"What are you?" is a question frequently asked of Danny Kim, the Korean-American protagonist of Don Lee's short story "Yellow," from the eponymous collection. The blunt question understandably rankles, but it also jars with Lee's occasionally elegant storytelling. Put so baldly, the language feels too familiar-we've been here before--and the reductive presentation makes one of the collection's central themes, the negotiation by Asian-Americans of White America, less interesting than the exploration of another query that Kim (and Lee) pose later: "Who knew about anyone, for that matter?" In this first collection of short stories, Lee succeeds better as both a writer and critic of contemporary society when he avoids the well-tread ground of quotidian racism and describes its more subtle, if more virulent expressions; or when he examines other facets of his oft-bewildered characters' psyches.
The book maps the loosely connected lives of several residents of the fictional Northern California town of Rosarita Bay. Characters include public defender Hank Low Kwon, burned out on representing remorseless criminals; Dean Kaneshiro, a Japanese-American furniture maker dating "Oriental Poet" Caroline Yip (in "The Price of Eggs in China," one of the book's stronger tales); Eugene Kim, whose White girlfriend dumps him after he balks at eating live sushi; and Annie Yung, who falls for the music of Patsy Cline, dresses up as a country singer and picks up a tall, dark stranger in a saloon called the Lone Night Cantina.
In an online interview with the Washington Post last May Lee admitted he'd attempted in these stories to "show that Asian Americans [could] be just as individual and different, as sexy, artsy, feisty, athletic, articulate, neurotic, and screwed up as anyone else in America." Yet Lee's laundry-list of what Asian Americans "can be" translates into what can feel like a calculated eclecticism, and the book is weakest where Lee attempts too much. Too often, Lee gives us more information than we want, without the sufficient care or tempo to allow the stories to unfold organically. The plots in these deliberate stories can feel like mere devices that permit Lee to arrive at occasionally heavyhanded conclusions. And in his eagerness to deliver the punchline Lee often flies over a dizzying collection of names and details: "They had met at the grand opening of Banzai Pipeline, the Japanese Restaurant on Main Street. Hank had grown up in Hawaii with the owner, Duncan Roh, a surfer Molly knew from Rummy Creek."
Yet when Lee pauses to linger in the lives of his characters, his eye and ear are sharp, and he's good with the nuances of diction: Annie Yung drawls "in a lollygagging accent vaguely reminiscent of the Southwest, but sometimes slanting toward Dixie Southern and other times dipping into the folk talk of the Appalachian hills"; he mocks his characters gently, and with sympathy. He's good, too in revealing how mundane obsessions evince more thoughtful, philosophical reflection: surfer Duncan Roh is "attuned to every dip and yaw of his board, sentient to a world ablaze in iridescent color: the bottle green of the water, the spindrift floating across the air... it was pointless and deadly, what he was doing, and it was beautiful." Lee's prose also can be beautiful, and his stories on the whole are solid, but he is too often content to draw glib sketches, rarely delving deeply enough beneath his characters' veneers ("Widowers", a quiet, understated story, is an exception.) Perhaps Lee's forthcoming novel will permit him more space and time to elaborate some of his preoccupations, including a fundamental concern in his work, articulated by "The Lone Night Cantina"'s Annie Yung, echoing Danny Kim: "I guess you can never tell about people."
Rachel Price Graduate Student Literature Department Duek University