"Shopkeepers make good narrators because they're passive and steady," writes Ben Ryder Howe in his memoir, My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store. "Plus, in the end, something awful always happens to them."
Howe knows from both narrators and shopkeepers: My Korean Deli follows Howe as he works days as an editor at The Paris Review and nights at his family's Brooklyn deli. And Howe, though a fairly lousy shopkeeper, makes for an excellent narrator: His book is an engaging and funny tour of the down-and-dirty world of New York City small business, whether that business is an Upper East Side literary magazine (The Paris Review later moved downtown) or a Boerum Hill bodega.
Howe and his wife, Gab, bought the deli as a last-ditch effort to earn enough money to move out of Gab's parents' house in Staten Island ("New York's pariah borough"). But the deli also serves as Gab's way to give something back to her mother, Kay, a steely Korean immigrant devoted to hard work and hard truths. "What's the matter?" she asks Howe, when he expresses his desire to own an upscale market rather than a downscale junk-food and phone-card emporium. "You not like money?"
"I would say that one of my biggest faults as a human being," Howe muses, "is that I do not love money, which makes me lazy and spoiled." The most satisfying parts of the book track Howe's evolution from a reserved and snobbish WASP to, essentially, an honorary Korean, thanks to the way that working inhuman hours in a failing family business breaks down boundaries between him and his striving immigrant in-laws.
And Howe and his relatives do spend an awful lot of time failing. The store makes less money than expected even as it is hit with massive tax bills; vendors and deliverymen screw over the new owners, leaving cartons of unwanted products on the floor of the store and then invoicing later. The city also tries to confiscate the deli's refrigerators and nails Howe for selling tobacco to a minor. Howe's evocation of the financial knife-edge on which he finds himself is so convincing that even if you step away from the book and go out into the world, you'll still thrum with low-level panic.
Meanwhile, Howe is witness to the last years of the legendary George Plimpton's reign over The Paris Review, that bastion of amateurism in the big world of literary publishing. At times, Howe can't get over the idea that the entire staff is playacting, especially when compared with the gritty reality of his deli. "The Paris Review was not a real place," he writes. "It was a fantasy, a make-believe world (poems! stories!) inside a bubble of privilege." Plimpton himself, though, is very real in this telling, "as tall as an NBA small forward, as pale as New England fog," a man who is ferocious in defending the precarious state of his magazine but who also shows the office an MRI of his testicles, "injured at a writers' conference in a late-night collision with a golden retriever."
Even as the deli's finances bottom out, the editors at the Review find themselves fighting for their jobs due to unforeseen tragedy. In addition to everything else, My Korean Deli is likely to be the best look we'll ever get at the inner workings of the most important literary magazine in the world during its awkward transition from an icon's pet project to a smaller, more serious concern.
The third of the big personalities populating My Korean Deli is Dwayne, a longtime employee of the store — he conveyed from the prior owner — whose expertise and work ethic make him indispensable, even as his penchant for loud jeremiads and obscene phone calls make Howe consider dispensing of him. Like Kay and Plimpton, Dwayne is secure in his own skin but essentially unknowable; Howe draws a fascinating portrait of all three complicated characters, while never suggesting he has plumbed their depths more than is believable.
Through it all, Howe's engaging, prickly personality shines through. Though the memoir, at times, gets too wrapped up in the minutiae of the day-to-day — whether in the deli, or at the Review, or in Howe's marriage — it's well worth it just to read Howe flying off on such comic tangents as his concerns that Gab's problems conceiving might be the fault of his dithering, reflective sperm. "Who gets to ascend the fallopian tube first, I can see them wondering, and how does that 'privilege the narrative' of the fallopian crossing?"
Does My Korean Deli have a happy ending? It depends how you define it, I guess. Would it be happy if Howe's deli achieves great success and Ben gets to work there for years to come? Or would it be happy if Howe's deli fails, and Ben isn't forced to work there for years to come? One of the strengths of this plucky, thoughtful memoir is that either possibility, in the end, seems both triumphant and bitterly disappointing.
Dan Kois is the author of Facing Future, about the Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo'ole. He lives in Arlington, Va., and writes for The New York Times, New York magazine, Slate, the Washington Post and other publications.