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Don Lee's Wrack & Ruin resurrects the fictitious town of Rosarita Bay, entertaining over-the-top plotlines while giving readers a guide to farming and agriculture.
"Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." -- Robert Frost
Don Lee, who grew up an army brat, never had a hometown to truly call his own. That may be the reason he crafted a fictional town of his own, Rosarita Bay, in his 2001 short story collection Yellow, and populated it with characters. When people leave their hometown and come back after a while, they are surprised to see how it has changed. This feeling is expressed in many ways in Wrack & Ruin, Lee's second full length novel, which also takes place in this fictitious town. Loosely based on the real town Half Moon Bay, Rosarita Bay is slowly becoming more gentrified. Lee takes a small background story from Yellow, regarding an urban development plan for the town, and makes it a major point of contention for Wrack & Ruin's Lyndon Song, a renowned sculptor turned reclusive Brussel sprout farmer.
Lee takes a different approach for this second visit to Rosarita Bay. While Yellow is mostly a serious assortment of loosely connected short stories, Wrack & Ruin is an over-the-top black comedy of errors and absurdity. Both books share the same qualities: quirky characters, fleshed-out backstories, and a sharp attention to detail. In his latest novel, Lee devotes an obscene amount of pages to organic farms, the New York art scene, film production, the taste of chocolate, bartending, saving endangered wetlands, and other sensory descriptions. The excessive attention to detail flesh out Lyndon's world, but it can get a bit tedious.
Lyndon is essentially the town pariah. His refusal to sell his struggling Brussel sprout farm is preventing the development of a massive golf course resort that would attract more tourism and revenue to the city. The mayor of Rosarita Bay, Sheila Lemke, also happens to be an ex-girlfriend that impulsively enjoys hammering nails into Lyndon's truck tires. To add more unwanted complications in his life, his brother Woody, a former convict turned movie producer, unexpectedly decides to crash at Lyndon's farm for a weekend. The novel alternates between the two brothers, who seem to be complete opposites. Detached and unconventional by nature, Lyndon is difficult to relate to. His up-and-down relationship with Sheila is engagingly comedic, but believable. His relationship with Woody is equally as tumultuous, as he and Woody can't seem to agree on anything -- in particular, Lyndon's refusal to sell his farm.
Lee's return to Rosarita Bay also allows him to revisit old locations and reuse characters from Yellow. The bar where Lyndon occasionally moonlights was previously a restaurant belonging to a background character in Yellow. Skunk B., another minor character in Yellow, returns as Lyndon's partner in crime in their prank-driven crusade against the resort project developers.
Here, Lee gets a little playful. He dedicates an absurd amount of care in detailing pranks that would make a college frat boy blush. Also, as a UCLA grad, Lee has experienced his fair share of the Bruin-Trojan rivalry, and he devotes a great part of a chapter to the humorous and much deserved bashing of USC real estate developer Ed Kitchnell.
Along with its details and character conflicts, the novel revels in a series of over-the-top calamities: the characters face series of bizarre and unfortunate events, including an elephant stampede, a wind surfing chase, and a federal crackdown. In between all the calamitous events, it also invites a bit of introspection, with snippets of Buddhist mantras that inexplicably reach the characters in the form of paper airplanes.
Another key difference between Wrack & Ruin and Yellow is its treatment (or lack thereof) of racial identity. Yellow draws its namesake from its titular story that addresses the expectations and anxieties of being in an interracial relationship. In contrast, Lyndon's relationship with Sheila is completely devoid of racial tension, as are the other mixed relationships in the novel. For the most part, the novel, with its ethnically diverse cast, avoids any direct exploration of race, gender, and nationality. Lee only addresses conflicts indirectly, in events outside the main story and characters. For example, the would-be director for Woody's latest film project, up-and-coming indie-director Dalton Lee (whose background reminds me of Justin Lin) unloads a vitriolic diatribe on the absurd expectations heaped upon successful minority artists:
I mean why is it we can only do fresh-off-the-boat, three-generations of immigrant, interracial-relationships, cultural misunderstanding movies? Why are we stuck with comfort women, picture brides, geishas, and green grocers, with exploring our roots and searching for our birth parents and examining what it means to be Asian American? I mean, come on, why does it always have to be about race and identity? I'm sick to death of race and identity.
Woody, exasperated with Lyndon's unwillingness to open up, makes a snide comment about how emotionally inaccessible and detached Asian men typically are. Lyndon also disdainfully recounts his days in the New York art scene. He laments he never got a fair shake in the art world because his worked was pigeonholed as either too Asian or not Asian enough. Why can't an artist just be an artist?
Wrack & Ruin creates a world filled with non-identity, derisive tones and disastrous events without being heavy-handed. It's a ride full of improbable loops and absurd turns. While the book concludes with a series of absurd events that neatly (and a little too conveniently) wraps up a every loose end, Lee aptly illustrates that sometimes the most compelling stories aren't the ones where the characters succeed, but when they fall flat on their faces and uncomfortably squirm about until they slowly get up.
Don Lee, Wrack & Ruin, W. W. Norton, 2008
Date Posted: 10/3/2008