The All-American by Joe Milan

This entry is part 13 of 23 in the series 2023 Reads

Like all the posts in my 2023 reads list, this comes at a lag, meaning I read this a while back—in this case, last month. 

First, a disclaimer: Joe’s a good friend of mine.1

With that out of the way: imagine waking up one day to discover that you’re not a citizen of the only country you can remember living in; imagine being deported to a place where you don’t speak the language, know nothing of the culture, where social customs and rules and even the food is a barrage of the bewildering and unfamiliar. And then, imagine being drafted into the army in such a place. (Believe it or not, this has actually happened to a few Koreans living in the United States, thanks to the disorder within the Korean international adoption industry.2)

Milan’s novel manages to be a timely satire of America’s on the messed-up “debate” (if we can call it that) about how “undocumented migrants” should be handled. It’s also a satire of life abroad, immersed in a wildly different culture, and about the painful process of adapting. Part of that means learning some of the language, getting used to the culture and values and expectations, figuring out the food and what one’s own identity is in the new place… and part of it is learning what’s beyond your control, what you can and cannot do alone, and coming to terms with needing to ask for help—as well as dealing with it when no help is forthcoming. Not only that, it’s a satire of a foreign culture within that foreign culture, for army life is as alien to normal life in Korea as life in Korea is to an all-American football-playing teenager from a dirtbag nowhere town in the Pacific Northwest. 

But what I loved about the novel is how ridiculously funny it manages to be, even while exploring all this serious stuff. I’m sure people are comparing it to Catch-22, and with good reason: it sends up the insanity of army life and structures of power in the military, but it’s also a whistle-stop tour of other things a foreign person experiences in Korea early in their stay: the seedy dive bar filled with weird Westerners; the gyopo who’s returned to the motherland in hope of “find herself”; the sassy local who takes pity on the foreigner and helps one out despite not needing to; the stone-faced bureaucrat; the punks who hurl slurs assuming you won’t understand. Slyly, quietly, Milan managed to squeeze in a surprising amount about the expat experience in Korea, especially the kind of experience foreign people used to have, back before we all had a doorway to the internet in our hip pockets. In the case of the narrator, it’s his training as a football player that gives him the determination and strength to go on and not become warped by the experience, even as common sense melts away and everything around him descends into hilarious, baffling chaos. Yet there’s also an underlying seriousness to the story: there’s loss and trauma to be overcome, even if neither of them ever overwhelm the story or its protagonist. So much happens at the intersection of realism and absurdity, and somehow it also manages to be a story of self-discovery, as I suppose are most narratives of loss and trauma and adaptation.   

I don’t devour novels all that often, but I did devour this one in a few short days—which is quick for me—and it stayed with me for quite a while after. 

In short, I loved the book, and recommend it highly. 

Series Navigation<< <em>The Order of Time</em> by Carlo Rovelli<em>The Tulip</em> by Anna Pavord >>

  1. I actually read an early draft of the book, as well, though it was quite different!

  2. A recent landmark ruling against the Holt Adoption Agency was in the news involving such a case involving a Korean-American named Adam Crapser who was deported in his 40s due to a botched adoption. Crapser, fortunately, was old enough not to be forced into military service.

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