Set on affluent Long Island, Aloft follows the life of a suburban, upper-middle-class man during a time of family crisis. Jerry Battle's favorite diversion is to fly his small plane over the neighboring towns and villages. When his daughter and her fiance arrive from Oregon to announce their marriage plans, he looks back on his life and faces his disengagement...
Set on affluent Long Island, Aloft follows the life of a suburban, upper-middle-class man during a time of family crisis. Jerry Battle's favorite diversion is to fly his small plane over the neighboring towns and villages. When his daughter and her fiance arrive from Oregon to announce their marriage plans, he looks back on his life and faces his disengagement with it - his urge to fly solo - and the people he loves.
Chang-Rae Lee, named by The New Yorker as one of its 20 writers for the 21st Century, has confirmed his place in that company with Aloft, a masterful treatment of a man coming to terms with his own disaffection. In two previous novels, Native Speaker and A Gesture Life, Lee, a Korean-American, writes of lives being not what they seem: in the first, the protagonist is an undercover agent; in the second, the two halves of Franklin Hata's life never quite come together. Both novels won numerous awards, including Best First Novel, the Hemingway PEN Award, the American Book Award and the Asian-American Literary Award, among others. In Aloft, Lee revisits alienation, a fractured family, mixed heritage and the quest for identity.
Jerry Battle, 59-year-old widower and father of two, retired from the family business--the unmistakably earthbound Battle Brothers Brick and Mortar--buys a small airplane because "From up here, a half mile above the Earth, everything looks perfect to me." All is not well below. Jerry knows it, saying
...the recurring fantasy of my life... is one of perfect continuous travel, this unending hop from one point to another, the pleasures found not in the singular marvels of any destination but in the constancy of serial arrivals and departures, and the comforting companion knowledge that you’ll never quite get intimate enough for any trouble to start brewing.
His view from aloft saves him from the gritty reality of the detritus of life--and from life itself.
This high-flyer must come to earth, however, when he finds that his daughter is newly pregnant, diagnosed with cancer, and refusing treatment; his son, who is running the company, has piled up enough debt that bankruptcy is imminent; and his father has gone missing from his assisted living facility. Jerry can no longer say, with impunity, "Jerry Battle hereby declines the Real." Lee takes us on great side trips into the pleasures of food and recreational sex; his wife Daisy's death; his longtime lover Rita's almost endless patience, weaving long, Miltonic sentences that start in one place and end up miles away--flights of fancy--trailing clouds of insight and poignancy. With Aloft Lee just keeps getting better.
From Publishers Weekly
Lee's third novel (after Native Speaker and A Gesture Life) approaches the problems of race and belonging in America from a new angle—the perspective of Jerry Battle, the semiretired patriarch of a well-off (and mostly white) Long Island family. Sensitive but emotionally detached, Jerry escapes by flying solo in his small plane even as he ponders his responsibilities to his loved ones: his irascible father, Hank, stewing in a retirement home; his son, Jack, rashly expanding the family landscaping business; Jerry's graduate student daughter, Theresa, engaged to Asian-American writer Paul and pregnant but ominously secretive; and Jerry's long-time Puerto Rican girlfriend, Rita, who has grown tired of two decades of aloofness and left him for a wealthy lawyer. Jack and Theresa's mother was Jerry's Korean-American wife, Daisy, who drowned in the swimming pool after a struggle with mental illness when Jack and Theresa were children, and Theresa's angry postcolonial take on ethnicity and exploitation is met by Jerry's slightly bewildered efforts to understand his place in a new America. Jerry's efforts to win back Rita, Theresa's failing health and Hank's rebellion against his confinement push the meandering narrative along, but the novel's real substance comes from the rich, circuitous paths of Jerry's thoughts—about family history and contemporary culture—as his family draws closer in a period of escalating crisis. Lee's poetic prose sits well in the mouth of this aging Italian-American whose sentences turn unexpected corners. Though it sometimes seems that Lee may be trying to embody too many aspects of 21st-century American life in these individuals, Jerry's humble and skeptical voice and Lee's genuine compassion for his compromised characters makes for a truly moving story about a modern family.
From The Washington Post's Book World /washingtonpost.com
Readers who felt they thoroughly knew the exact scope of the work of Chang-rae Lee, the precise dimensions of his talents, after reading his first two books, Native Speaker and A Gesture Life, will be in for a surprise when they pick up his new novel, Aloft. Gone is the tight focus on the Asian-American experience, the self-recriminating, hapless protagonists and the language dense as bamboo thickets. In their place stands an Italian-American narrator who, while still heavy with regrets, is basically too full of life-juice to languish, and who discloses his soul and the tumultuous events of his life in a rough and ready vernacular that is not, however, devoid of poetry.
Whether you find the new book a joyous revelation, an ascent in Lee's career, or a betrayal and a wrong turn depends, I think, on how much you had invested in him as a spokesman for a particular ethnic experience, and in how predictable you like your authors. I appreciate a writer who's not overzealously committed to any one ideology or group, who likes to confound expectations and who feels expansive enough in his spirit and ambitions to encompass not just his close kinsmen but the infamous Other. With Aloft, Chang-rae Lee proves himself just such a writer.
Jerry Battle -- the family name was originally Battaglia -- is a 59-year-old landscape contractor on Long Island, once head of Battle Brothers but now retired early, having inherited the business from his father, Hank, and passed it on to his own son, Jack. Jerry fritters away his golden days lazily, holding down a part-time desk at a travel agency and taking his small plane aloft whenever he can. Although he's worked hard all his life, he admits that his basic nature is one of sloughing off responsibilities, emotional and vocational. (He entered the family business lackadaisically, in deference to his domineering father, even though his teenage dream was to be a fighter pilot.) But Jerry's lifelong innate "disbelief in the real" has culminated in a messy present. His daughter, Theresa, a postmodern scholar who is intent on naming her first child Barthes, will no longer confide in Jerry, even though her own life is at a crisis. Jerry's wife-in-all-but-name, Rita Reyes, has recently ditched him. Papa Hank, immured in a nursing home, continues to tug cords of guilt. And son Jack seems to be running Battle Brothers into the ground. Additionally, a host of lesser characters make their own demands on Jerry.
While the real-time events of the novel fill only a few pivotal summer days (excluding a coda that takes place some months later), the book exhibits the same infolding and mixing of past and present as Lee's earlier works. For Lee and his protagonists, the Faulknerian motto about the inescapable past is the rule that, for better or worse, governs their lives. As we follow Jerry through his semi-chaotic vectorings around Long Island -- he crashes a party where Rita is prey to a rival lover, engages in some fisticuffs with a jealous fellow at the travel agency, and hunts for a father gone missing, among other pursuits -- we are treated to his reminiscences about his entire life, most important those concerning his wife, Daisy, the mother of Jack and Theresa, and her death. This blending and blurring of cause and effect lends this book some of the same sense of timelessness as Lee's earlier novels, although the events of the present are foregrounded more vividly here.
Jerry's language is perhaps the biggest difference between this book and Lee's first two. Both of the earlier books are also narrated in the first person, and their language reflects Conradian consciousnesses much more layered and tortured than Jerry's. Describing his father, Jerry observes, plainly but colorfully, "At the moment, he's dozing hard, his mouth laid open, unhinged, his eyes pinched up like something really, really hurts." Compare that to this formalized, elaborate description of the politician John Kwang from Native Speaker: "His warm-hued face was square, owing its shape to the eminence of his angular jaw, which carved out two perfect hollows on either side of his chin." Yet Jerry, relatively uneducated as he is, still summons up enough zesty bon mots and aper?us to complement the more roughly hewn passages. In fact, at times he veers dangerously close to sounding like a sophisticated John Barth protagonist -- say Fenwick Turner in Sabbatical. And it's at these rare awkward moments that the mask slips and reveals Lee the master craftsman.
Lee does not eschew all his old subjects. Daisy and Paul, Theresa's fiancé, are both Asian Americans, allowing Lee to offer new insights into the roles America affords non-Caucasians. And Lee's previously established preeminent theme -- in the midst of life we are in death -- forms the core of the book. On a pleasure cruise, a fatal heart attack strikes. During a nursing home meal, mortality intervenes. A swimming pool almost literally becomes a grave. And the book's very climax is the archetypical embodiment of the paradoxical relationship between life and death.
If I were to find any fault with this exuberant, satirical, rueful, redemptive tale, it would be in its governing metaphor of flight. Jerry's actual airtime occurs only at the start and end of the book, and despite some intermittent passages concerning a famous balloon aviator, the hobby seems almost tangential to the story. One can imagine excising the riff without grievously diminishing this story of one man's quest for honor and grace in the face of his own failings and the world's unyielding strictures.
Reviewed by Paul Di Filippo
At 59, Jerry Battle takes great comfort in the orderliness of the aerial view as he flies his small plane above Long Island, where his Italian American family has run a landscape business for generations, and the fact is, Jerry is always somewhat airborne. He suppresses his feelings, avoids confrontation, and, although he's physically present for his still-virile elderly father and his adult children, he is always out of reach. But gravity is a relentless force, and over the course of just a few months, Jerry is pulled inexorably into a snarl of family catastrophes, reaping the consequences of his indifference toward the family business, his inability to come to terms with his wife's death, and his failure to ask the woman he loves, Rita, to marry him, even though she essentially raised his son, Jack, whose questionable financial shenanigans will destroy the family business, and his daughter, Theresa, whose progressive views evaporate in the face of her cruel fate: she's diagnosed with cancer at the same time she gets pregnant. Lee follows the stunning A Gesture Life (1999) with a brilliant and candid parsing of the dynamics of a family of mixed heritage--Jerry's wife was Korean, as is Theresa's intended, and Rita is Puerto Rican--while simultaneously offering a ribald look at male sexuality, a charming celebration of the solace of good food, and a sagacious and bitingly funny critique of our times. There is no escape, Lee reminds us, no rising above. We have no choice but to cope with fleshy, chaotic, and bittersweet life right here on earth.
Chang-Rae Lee is in Updike territory here, the Rabbit Angstrom beat. His Jerry Battle is a suburban guy who has skimmed over full comprehension of just about everything important in life: the death of his wife, his distance from his children, his longtime girlfriend's defection to a cruder, richer man, his father's raging against the night in his nursing place. Don Leslie has trouble with the long rhythm of Lee's sentences and can't find a likable voice for Jerry, choosing heaviness and anger when puzzlement or self-deprecation would have helped. Also, throughout, Leslie calls Jerry's daughter-in-law "Your-niece," which is seriously confusing until you understand it's "Eunice," and seriously distracting thereafter. A wonderful book, it deserves a less earth-bound interpretation. B.G.
"Set on affluent Long Island, Aloft follows the life of a suburban, upper-middle-class man during a time of family crisis. Jerry Battle's favorite diversion is to fly his small plane over the neighboring towns and villages. When his daughter and her fiancé arrive from Oregon to announce their marriage plans, he looks back on his life and faces his disengagement with it-his urge to fly solo-and the people he loves. Chang-rae Lee burst on the scene with Native Speaker, which won numerous awards, including the PEN/Hemingway Award. His second novel, A Gesture Life, established him as one of the preeminent writers of his generation. Now, with Aloft, Lee has expanded his range and proves himself a master storyteller, able to observe his characters' flaws and weaknesses and, at the same time, celebrate their humanity. Aloft is an unforgettable portrait, filled with vitality and urgency, of a man who has secured his life's dreams but who must now figure out its meaning."