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Patti Kim's A Cab Called Reliable

I picked up Patti Kim's debut novel A Cab Called Reliable (St. Martin's Griffin, 1997) at the St. Paul Public Library. It's short length was a draw as I decided between a few different Korean American novels about growing up in an immigrant household.



I am tempted to classify Kim's as young adult fiction, but I don't know if it is marketed as such. The novel features the first-person narrator Ahn Joo, a young girl faced with some horrible circumstances. The narrative is told retrospectively, but the narrative voice tries to capture the perspective and feelings of Ahn Joo at the age being narrated. The effect seems to me a classic move on the part of young adult fiction--creating a greater sense of identification for the reader with the protagonist. This particular character also seems especially precocious in her ability to deal with some of the difficulties of her life, another quality of young adult fiction that tends to favor hardy protagonists who must face a heartless world without even the help of their parents. (Note: My reading of the novel as "young adult" fiction is not meant to denigrate it or to suggest it is not sophisticated enough to be called "regular adult" fiction. There are conventions that make particular narratives especially amenable to being marketed for a young adult audience, though, and this novel seems to fall into those conventions for me.)

There is somewhat of a lack of clarity, though, with how much that precocity is added by an older narrator's perspective. There are certainly many moments in which the young child notices things and describes them very astutely even though she doesn't understand the meaning of them, especially difficult moments like when her father persists in rubbing her belly long after she no longer has tummyaches and when she spies on her father having sex with a woman who works at the Korean market:
Heavy breathing came from my father's bedroom. His door had not been shut tight. I peeped through the crack. The blinds were pulled up. The moon nestled in the window's upper-left corner. The calendar was still in the month of May. My eyes moved toward the left of the drawer, half its mirror cut off by the frame of the door. I saw only half of Loo Lah's wave of a bare back growing out of the dresser top, her calf pasted to the back of her thigh. She sat like a frog about to jump off one lily pad onto another. I saw half of her permed head, which my father's hand seemed to clutch and sway. One of his legs hung over the dresser. His foot rested inside an opened drawer. The metal handles clinked.
As this example demonstrates, the narrator casts about to describe what she sees, some of it seemingly irrelevant to the moment which is seeing her father have sex with Loo Lah like mention of the moon and the calendar. Likewise, Ahn Joo does not call the scene one of sex because she is, at that moment, too young to know what sex is. These experiences, however, also lead the narrator to experiment with her body and that of a neighbor boy before she feels that desire that leads people to pleasurable bodily encounters.

At the beginning of the novel, Ahn Joo's mother leaves her behind with her abusive father, taking her younger brother with her. The eponymous cab called Reliable is the car that Ahn Joo sees her mother hurriedly jumping into as she returns from school that fateful day. This cab takes on associations of abandonment for Ahn Joo and foregrounds the theme of reliability (or lack thereof) for the remainder of the novel, functioning in that respect like the streetcar of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire. The novel quickly follows Ahn Joo from elementary school into high school as she excels particularly in writing. She faces racist as well as well-meaning but exoticizing classmates and teachers at school, and her English teachers like her stories about Korean culture that highlight difference and inscrutability. Her father, meanwhile, shapes up a bit and stops treating her so badly. Their relationship takes on more qualities of the immigrant and child dynamic, with the father illiterate in English and reliant on Ahn Joo at times to broker exchanges with white Americans.

At the end of the novel, there are two chapters that break with the general narrative voice. One includes excerpts of letters written by Ahn Joo to her absent mother over the course of many years. The one-sided conversation is touching and helps to flesh out some of the things that the narrator doesn't say in the rest of the narrative explicitly. The final chapter then marks another shift in which the narrative voice addresses the father as "you," narrating both a shared past and a present-day encounter with the father in a way that shifts the attention of the narrative to the relationship between Ahn Joo and her father and away from her yearning relationship with the always absent mother:
You liked anchovy soup, so I stunk up my hair and the house to cook it for you. You wanted eel, I almost burned down the house smoking it for you. You liked live squid, so I fought with its tentacles to dump them in the kimchi for you. I cut them up, dumped them in the stinging red sauce, and they were still moving.
The chapter fills out a dynamic between Ahn Joo and her father that is much more explicit about her yearning to please him as well as how she pushes back against his expectations to be a certain kind of daughter, girl, and woman.

A Cab Called Reliable is a thoughtfully rendered coming-of-age story that blends the more typical immigrant narrative with that of the broken home. Rather than telling the story of a complete nuclear family (father-mother-siblings) struggling to acculturate, this novel strips away the mother who is often central to such narratives of inter-generational conflict (mother-daughter relationship). Of course, the mother's absence is a persistent force in the novel, but it is instead the story of Ahn Joo and her father as they muddle their way to some version of the American Dream and success without the full family
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