In Chang-rae Lee’s wildly inventive comic novel, My Year Abroad, Tiller Boardman spends the summer in his New Jersey hometown waiting to start his college junior year abroad in Italy. His mother left the family years ago. His father is sweet and supportive but entirely hands-off. Tiller thinks of himself as an orphan. He is more unformed than his years, rudderless, waiting for something to jump-start his life.
That something turns out to be Pong Lou, a middle-aged Chinese immigrant, a chemist and a serial entrepreneur. Tiller meets him while working as a fill-in caddy at a local golf course. Pong and his golfing buddies are an unruly bunch of immigrants who are not quite the right fit for this traditional club. Pong is one of the most intriguing figures in recent fiction. He is generous, curious and full of energy and ideas, a kind of life force. We learn later, in one of the book’s most moving chapters, that Pong’s parents were prominent Chinese artists and university professors whose lives were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Pong, whose takeaway from the hardships of his childhood is to seek from life “a quantum of sweetness,” convinces Tiller to skip the grand tour of Europe and go with him to Asia.
Tiller’s travels with Pong are filled with wild, eye-opening, often hilarious adventures. In a wonderful scene in a karaoke bar, Pong urges the tuneless Tiller to sing, and Tiller discovers the singing voice he didn’t know he had. Later, Tiller also discovers that taboo sex is not for him, despite the allure of his partner. Not everything works out quite as he’d hoped, but for Tiller it is a life-altering journey of self-discovery.
A second strand of the novel follows Tiller in his life a year later, as he struggles to take to heart all he has learned about himself and assume responsibility for his own life and for those close to him. He has ended up in a drab, middle-American town, hiding out with a troubled 30-something woman and her difficult 8-year-old son, both of whom are in the witness protection program because her former husband is a gangster. Tiller’s wild year abroad is the memory of a lifetime, but during this following year is when he creates his real life with this makeshift family.
In My Year Abroad, Chang-rae Lee has written a surprising, spirited, keenly observed novel, full of the crazy and the profound.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Chang-rae Lee discusses the wildness and comedy of My Year Abroad.