What’s not obvious from the title of this book is that Howe was, at the time in which this book is set, a senior editor at The Paris Review. And thus while the memoir is ostensibly about the author, his Korean wife and mother-in-law buying and running a Brooklyn deli, there’s a subplot about the final years of the Review under its venerable editor, George Plimpton.
Howe manages to weave his life at the Review, the trials of running a small business in New York, and, perhaps most compellingly, the tangle of emotion and obligation in his wife’s family’s life vs. his extremely Puritan New England upbringing. He’s a descendant of those who came over on the Mayflower (and his family never left Plymouth, MA) and as the book progresses he finds himself learning to understand and support his immigrant mother-in-law, and to give in to his wife’s sense of family duty. It’s an interesting perspective, and as a reader you can sense the anxiety it caused him. George Plimpton and the struggling Paris Review are another source of anxiety and stress, and yet Howe has written a humorous, loving memoir that displays both his discomfort with and respect for the ways Plimpton and his mother-in-law do things.
The descriptions of the inner workings of The Paris Review are intriguing, sometimes funny. (They would, I suspect, be funnier if I wasn’t submitting my own work to lit magazines.) For example:
One of the quintessential Paris Review experiences is opening a cupboard to look for a coffee mug and having an avalanche of short fiction land on top of you. You open a closet meant for coats and there’s a stack of cardboard boxes containing unsolicited manuscripts. You sit down at your desk and stretch out your legs, and bump—there’s a whole milk crate of human creativity. There’s slush on the shelves in piles reaching up to the ceiling, slush in the basement in ice coolers and picnic baskets, slush under the toilet, slush over the sink … There’s so much slush it makes you wonder if everyone in the country, instead of watching reality TV and playing video games, is writing short stories.
The magazine lacked any employees handling the business aspects — marketing and permissions, for example, which led to mistakes by and complications for its editors, including Howe. And Plimpton’s failing health presents challenges that no one at the magazine is prepared to handle. Meanwhile Howe and his wife are living with his in-laws on Staten Island, working night shifts at the financially teetering deli and watching his mother-in-law work harder than he ever imagined possible. He must learn about her past and understand why she is the way she is. She’s a force in the book, a character that Howe presents perhaps more completely than he does his wife, a corporate attorney who works shifts in the deli after a long day in her Manhattan office. The family learns to manage employees, how to handle deliverymen who try to extort them, and they battle undercover officers trying to catch them in the act of selling cigarettes to minors. Of course, as in any convenience store, there’s also the added concerns about crime, small margins, and difficult customers. You can’t help but want to know how it turns out.