Joon, the 13-year-old runaway at the center of Miles from Nowhere, could use some good advice, and early in the story, she gets some from a tough-talking girl in a youth shelter cafeteria: “Life’s only as bad as you make it out to be. It’s got nothing to do with the way it is.”
That philosophy is put to the test on nearly every page of Nami Mun’s debut novel. Set in New York City in the 1980s, the story opens shortly after Joon’s father abandons the family once and for all. “He had given up on us. On my mother’s ways. She was getting up in the middle of the night and stepping out onto our cold, muddy yard to dig a hole in the ground, as if trying to tunnel her way back to Korea.”
After months begging her despondent mother to speak just one word, Joon takes to the streets in a futile effort to find her father. The resulting survival tale is wrenching on nearly every page. “In order to get what I needed—shelter, food, money, friendship—parts of me, piece by piece, would have to be sacrificed,” Joon tells us. She earns fifteen cents a minute as a sex worker, shoots drugs in abandoned apartments, and, on better days, sells used newspapers on the train. “Sometimes people handed money over without even taking a page, maybe thinking their donation would keep their kids from turning out like me.”
Structured as a novel-in-stories, Miles from Nowhere narrates several years of Joon’s life with compassion and humor, introducing readers to memorable, sharply drawn secondary characters she encounters on the streets. There’s Wink, a young man who struts around the youth shelter looking, in his Members Only jacket, like “the president of money,” only to later troll the subway looking for tricks. There’s Marilyn, a Latina sex worker with more free advice: “The first day’s the hardest. That’s cuz you got all that crap in your brains about right and wrong and shit.”
Mun writes with the acuity of a miniaturist, yet her attention to detail never comes at the expense of momentum. “At night I used to take the ferry back and forth from the city to Staten Island. I’d watch the diamond lights smearing the wet window glass or stand out on the windy deck as the regulars sat crooked, drinking their pints and shouting about different kinds of loss.” In a style reminiscent of Denis Johnson, Mun’s prose is clear, lyrical, and punctuated by breathtaking figurative language. “I stood on the railing and let the wind sting my eyes and tickle my veins where a warm drug bubbled through, heating up like the wires of an electric blanket. I was sixteen and pregnant, then, thinking that the ups and downs of the East River would kill it somehow.”
Like Johnson, Mun resists the most common pitfalls of writing about addiction and destitution. Neither a sensationalistic shock tour, nor a heartwarming recovery tale, Miles from Nowhere is about loneliness, and the fleeting moments of hope with which Joon tries to sustain herself. “I wasn’t the best salesgirl but I liked the job,” she says, when she lands a gig selling Avon. “I liked being inside people’s homes because there I wasn’t pregnant, I wasn’t a runaway, I wasn’t using. With the makeup on I became a new version of me.”
The New York that Joon inhabits is brought to life with just enough cultural references (Billy Dee Williams, anyone?) to place readers firmly in the era, without adorning scenes with gratuitous detail. It’s a city too big to notice the tragic lives and lost innocence of its inhabitants. Come to this novel for the gripping story of a teenage runaway, stay for the transcendent language—Nami Mun’s debut shows not only how lives are eviscerated, but how they can be rebuilt.