Don Lee returns to Rosarita Bay with a novel that features Brussels sprouts, kung fu divas, feuding brothers, and a complex look at ethnic identity.
Humor can be a beautiful literary device: a combination of impeccable timing, precision language, and self-awareness that’s at once surprising and delightful, thought-provoking yet lighthearted, offering readers a glimpse of humanity while upholding a buffer of intrigue. Of course, humor can be a difficult thing to pull off, requiring not only a proper handling of build-up, execution, and payoff, but also a thorough understanding of tone and character. But although it is sometimes crude and occasionally ludicrous, humor, when properly employed, can reveal great truth.
Such is the case in Wrack & Ruin, Don Lee’s return to the fictional town of Rosarita Bay, CA, locale of his 2002 short story collection, Yellow. This time around, the action follows Lyndon Song, a former hot-shot artist resigned to a life of Brussels sprouts farming and part-time bartending. Song’s a bit of a recluse, content with keeping to himself, enjoying his daily bowl of 420, and sabotaging his relationships with members of the opposite sex. Upon the arrival of his estranged brother, an aspiring film producer named Woody, Lyndon’s bucolic existence is quickly turned on end. Suddenly, he finds himself embroiled in a struggle for both his land and his sense of self, the former of which is threatened by developers intent on turning the farm into a golf course, the latter of which threatens to expose his secrets, including the reason he traded the glamour and prestige of the New York art scene for sleepy California anonymity.
Appropriately, the backdrop of Rosarita Bay is significant to the way in which the events of Wrack & Ruin unfold. It’s a town whose identity—like Lyndon’s own—seems largely undefined: Is it a coastal secret tucked away beneath the fog, or the next big thing in manufactured high-end resorts? Whatever the case, the size of the town facilitates the various interactions among Lee’s extensive cast of characters—including a surfer with a prosthetic foot, an overly zealous USC alum, and an aging kung fu diva with a drinking problem and a knack for getting thrown out of hotels—interactions that complicate the plot while also providing ironic comic relief. Over a two-page span in the first chapter, for example, Lyndon, while on an impromptu ice-cream date with his shiatsu masseuse, turns a corner to discover his ex-lover (who happens to be the mayor) hammering nails into his truck tires, after the repair of which he is pulled over by the bitter town sheriff, and then, upon arriving home, roundhouse kicked in the head by a mysterious woman stepping out of his shower.
Of course, things aren’t all bad for Lyndon, who, by the novel’s end, matures from a rebellious prankster to a sobered pragmatic—a course of discovery that Lee handles expertly, weaving together a twisting plot and a playful prose style to result in a wholly immersive and highly enjoyable read. Here is a writer able to create thoughtful, well-rounded characters who command attention yet don’t overwhelm, who allow the drama to unfold at a natural pace, sometimes laidback, sometimes rapid fire.
But Wrack & Ruin is more than an engaging plot and a likable ensemble of characters. It’s also a discussion of identity—specifically Asian American identity—and how it influences the choices of three prominent personalities: Lyndon, Woody, and Dalton Lee, an art-house filmmaker struggling to break into the mainstream. For Lyndon and Dalton, this is a conflict of ethnicity, one borne of their respective artistic endeavors and the stereotypes ascribed to them by the critical world. Both, despite American upbringings, have been branded “Asian” artists, a label that’s limited their creative efforts and against which each has rebelled against in his own way. For Woody, with his Harvard education and Berluti loafers, the conflict is one of assimilation, the desire to cast aside any lingering Asian-ness for a chance to succeed in the “White” world.
Despite this focus on race, the novel avoids heavy-handedness. Lee proposes no definitive answers to the various questions raised; rather, he keeps true to his role as storyteller, creating and manipulating authentic characters who must deal with the shit that happens (or has happened) to them. For the most part, this method is effective, and many of the interactions and revelations have a serendipitous feel. To bring the story to a close, however, Lee relies on a change in tempo that readers are not entirely trained for, an effect that succeeds in purpose yet comes off as a bit jarring, too conveniently offered.
Overall, though, Wrack & Ruin is a delight to read, a wonderfully imagined world that draws us in from the opening sentence and keeps us hooked with surprising insight and pitch-perfect humor. It is a novel that takes itself seriously but not too seriously, one unafraid to acknowledge that while “[n]othing happens in this country without the involutions of race,” these complications sometimes allow us to examine ourselves, a process that, even when undertaken in earnest, is bound to elicit at least a few honest laughs.