This Week's Reads

Dan Chaon, Rattawut Lapcharoensap.

You Remind Me of Me

By Dan Chaon (Ballantine, $13.95) Somewhere in the flyover states, specifically South Dakota and Nebraska, people yearn for meaning and connection in their lives. On the coasts, in most contemporary fiction, these characters might drink expensive martinis, engage in one-night stands, and lounge around their fabulous apartments, brooding over their discontent. They might ride Italian scooters and watch foreign movies, looking for films to explain—or at least make ironic references to—their ennui. In the small-town Midwest of this debut novel, however, they're more likely to drive an old Ford Fiesta and work as a prep cook in a diner. These are different circumstances but the same essential human yearnings for three generations of a family divided by adoption, drug addiction, and jail. Trapped in dead-end jobs in shrinking prairie towns, they hardly know one another, hardly know themselves. Alternating between three settings, which range from the late '60s through the '90s, Dan Chaon compassionately imagines how unwed 15-year-old Nora is forced to give up her baby; how fatherless Jonah, Nora's second son, later grows up a withdrawn only child; and how Troy, a petty drug dealer abandoned by his crackhead wife, later tries to raise his own son, Loomis, with some semblance of family feeling. Part of the point of You Remind Me of Me (which is new in paper) is to figure how, and how thinly, the DNA has been stretched among them; it's more a God's-eye perspective on this genetic dispersal than a mystery (though crime and punishment figure in the plot). Chaon periodically pulls the camera back, so to speak, far above the drama of these small, unremarkable lives, so that Jonah sees "his own existence dwindling into something subatomic." Since Jonah, essentially an orphan for most of the story, feels he has the least interesting family history to relate, he becomes something of a compulsive liar about his past—even when he seeks out his nearest living kin. "He wonders if it is possible to unlie yourself," Chaon writes. Less prone to abstract brooding, Troy just tries to recall precisely where his life went wrong. The most melancholy of the three, and certainly the most tragic, Nora stands at the fulcrum between choice and circumstance. Neither she nor Chaon's evenhanded narration makes it obvious whether her kids would be better off with her or without her. Is the absence of family preferable to a flawed family? Should the strings be cut or tied? Such questions bedevil them all. Though You Remind Me takes place in what might be called the Jerry Springer heartland, nobody throws any folding metal chairs over issues of paternity or abandonment. There's much longing but surprisingly little bitterness or anger. Urban coastal dwellers might vent their family frustrations with more sarcasm and style, and yet that's precisely what Chaon, an Ohio resident, avoids here. His characters may be overlooked and underappreciated from our own distant perspective, but he succeeds in making their lives feel as important as our own. BRIAN MILLER Dan Chaon will appear at Queen Anne Books, (1811 Queen Anne Ave. N., 206-283-5624), 6:30 p.m. Thurs., May 12. Sightseeing

By Rattawut Lapcharoensap (Grove Press, $19.95) This absorbing short-story collection begins with a litany of comments about tourists, from the mind of a young man born and raised in a coastal Thai town. Not surprisingly, we Yankees get the worst of it. "Americans are the fattest, the stingiest of the bunch," the unnamed narrator muses. "They may pretend to like pad thai or grilled prawns or the occasional curry, but twice a week they need their culinary comforts, their hamburgers and their pizzas. They're also the worst drunks." It's a daring way for Rattawut Lapcharoensap to start a book aimed squarely at Western readers. It also serves as a fitting introduction—not only to the opening story, "Farangs," about a short-lived romantic tangle between the narrator and an American girl, but to Sightseeing as a whole. The book's leitmotif is culture clash, often exacerbated by the distance between generations. Such is especially the case in "Don't Let Me Die in This Place," whose cantankerous narrator, Perry, is a wheelchair-bound, aging Baltimorean living with his son and Thai daughter-in-law in Bangkok. Though he's not far removed from the Ugly Americans of "Farangs," referring to his grandkids as "mongrel children" and turning up his nose at congee (rice porridge), Perry redeems himself in surprising ways. So does Ladda, the teenage narrator of "Cockfighter." Her small town is ruled by Little Jui, the son of a local thug, who taunts her lecherously and torments her father, the title character. Ladda yearns to shed the provincialism of her hometown by escaping into the outside world, perhaps with Jui's good-hearted Filipino henchman, Ramon. Her father's generation sees no future outside the city limits and Thai culture; her perspective is much more global, and in the end it saves her. The stories in Sightseeing move swiftly, thanks to the author's cinematic eye and excellent pacing, through settings few Western readers will recognize. Yet we've all been bullied; we've all strained to grow up and get out on our own; and most of us have had ailing relatives who've fought to maintain their dignity. You may only be sightseeing when you visit Lapcharoensap's Thailand, but you'll almost certainly bring some of it home with you. NEAL SCHINDLER

 
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