Faced with a choice of fight or flight, Jerry Battle, the narrator of Aloft, has always opted for the latter. For years, the upper-middle-class widower and father of two has escaped the world in a two-seater propeller plane, soaring a few thousand feet over the neighborhoods and villages of his native Long Island, New York. Rising above it all in his "private box seat in the world and completely outside of it, too," Jerry, on the verge of turning 60, has emotionally disengaged from the death of his wife, the end of his relationship with a live-in lover of 20 years, and two adult children who love him yet keep their distance. After Native Speakerand A Gesture Life, two critically acclaimed novels centering on the immigrant experience, Hunter College creative writing professor Chang-rae Lee dissects the American dream from the inside out, through the eyes of a white suburbanite who has lived his entire life in the United States. Retired from Battle Brothers, the family landscaping business started by his father, Jerry has a life that glides along calmly, until daughter Theresa and her fiancÅ½ Paul arrive from Oregon with good and bad news; Theresa is pregnant, and she has cancer. Meanwhile, Jerry's son Jack is mismanaging Battle Brothers, and Jerry's Italian-American father grouses incessantly about the assisted-living facility in which his son has placed him. Casting further darkness on this cluster of crises are Jerry's haunting memories of his wife Korean-American Daisy Han who drowned in the family pool two decades earlier.
In his hideaway in the sky, Jerry seeks solace from his shortcomings as a father, husband, lover and son. As events of the novel unfold, he realizes he can no longer wing it alone. "No matter how much I wished to disappear sometimes, to fly off and away," says Jerry, "I really couldn't, and maybe never did." In rich, riveting, radiant prose, Aloft explores a man's lifelong struggle to navigate life's tricky emotional terrain. It is a graceful commentary on the contemporary American soul. Allison Block reviews from Solana Beach, California.