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BOOK REVIEW

Journey of misguided adolescence

In ''Miles From Nowhere,'' Nami Mun writes about the hardships of a Korean teen. In ''Miles From Nowhere,'' Nami Mun writes about the hardships of a Korean teen. (BRIGITTE SIRE)
By Renée Graham
February 21, 2009
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Vivid and mournful, "Miles From Nowhere" follows five agonizing years in the life of Joon, a Korean teenager who slides onto society's jagged edges after her family disintegrates. Hers is an emotionally upending story in which author Nami Mun unflinchingly details the hardships that inflict Joon, as well as the shattered souls who drift in and out of her misspent adolescence.

The book is set in 1980s New York, when Times Square was more a festering brothel than a chain-store theme park for Sun Belt tourists, more akin to the grime of Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" than the candy-colored martinis of "Sex and the City." Yet for Joon, who immigrated from South Korea to the Bronx with her parents, it seems preferable to her tumultuous home. When her father, a drunk and a philanderer, abandons his family, Joon's mother loses her fragile sanity. On the night Joon's father leaves, her mother sets his belongings ablaze in the backyard.

Joon eventually leaves as well. She's only 13, and befitting someone her age, she's more focused on what she's running from than what she's running to. She's the kind of girl willing to do what other people want simply because it's easier than offering an objection. Life rolls over Joon, leaving her stunned and shredded. She knows the years will make her too old too fast, and there's little she can do to prevent it.

At first, Joon, who narrates the story, winds up in a shelter where she meets Knowledge, all street savvy and Bronx hard. While Joon is passive, Knowledge lives for action, and is a tangle of contradictions. Knowledge breaks into her family's home to steal a Christmas tree, cursing them even as she drops tinsel and ornaments, yet she chases down a thief who swipes a stranger's wallet. Later, she defies her boyfriend's order to rob a bank when she discovers, upon reaching the teller's window, that he has misspelled "money" as "monie" in the stickup note.

"Yes, she could've been killed, and there was no way she was going to lose her life for some idiot who couldn't spell money," Joon says of Knowledge. "She had worked too hard to go down like that. She had standards."

Joon has standards as well, and they're just as dubious. She refuses to beg for money on the streets since she believes panhandling is "for losers." She doesn't easily trust people, yet falls for every false claim of love from men she believes will save her. And when she needs money for a drug fix, she's not above selling her body to sad, dangerous brutes in cars or dark rooms. For her long, numbing nights, Joon barely earns her enough for a nickel bag.

"If you were down long enough, some wire in your brain got snipped and all the noise just vanished," Joon says at one point. "And when the sound left, the pain left, too, leaving you flat on the floor, watching a peaceful movie of yourself taking every hit and feeling absolutely nothing. During those times, I was a superhero."

Mun relays it all with a jarring honesty that makes the book both difficult to read and impossible to forget. Perhaps that's because there are some parallels between Joon and Mun, who also ran away from her Bronx home and worked a similar series of odd jobs including dance-hall hostess and door-to-door salesgirl. In interviews, Mun has insisted the story is not autobiographical, but her own experiences have clearly burnished her novel's stinging authenticity.

While it would be accurate to call "Miles From Nowhere" a coming-of-age story, such descriptions fall woefully short in capturing the gravity of Joon's arduous journey. Both foreign and familiar, Mun's characters are staples of every urban landscape - young lives on the margins bearing witness each day to despair, decay, and death. Yet for all their desperation, there is also their dogged struggle to survive even when they know the next sunrise may again bring them everything but hope.

Renee Graham is a freelance writer.

MILES FROM NOWHERE By Nami Mun

Riverhead, 288 pp., $21.95

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