(Akashic Books, 2004)
In Las Cucarachas, author Yongsoo Park enters the consciousness of Peter Kim, an urban pre-teenager whose life is defined by stickball, racial boundaries and fist fights. The son of Korean parents, Peter is an ordinary twelve-year-old in 1980s Elmhurst who is crass and excessively hormonal, and who has an inevitable disdain for authority. He is the leader of a crew called the Warriors, a group of foul-mouthed Korean boys who pride themselves on their toughness. What separates him from his peers is his ability to solve a Rubik’s cube in minutes, as well as his precociousness and ability to tell a great story.
In his second novel, Park doesn’t mimic the narrative conventions of his previous book, Boy Genius. While Boy Genius is an enigmatic take of arrival that read like a thriller and at times recalls Rushdie’s magical realistic representation of the underbelly of cosmopolitan life in the Satanic Verses, Las Cucarachas is far less dramatic and sensational. In fact, this novel focuses on the harsh experiences of urban immigrant youth and forsakes James Bond-like plot twists and surreal characters for an urban poignancy that rivals Junot Diaz’s prose in Drown.
At the onset of the novel, we learn that Peter’s home has been recently robbed, and most importantly, his Atari has been stolen. At first, Peter tries to forget about the robbery and proceed with his morning as if it were any other day of his summer vacation. But he has a lingering desire to find out who broke into his family’s home and store his precious possessions. Peter ends up wandering the streets of Elmhurst in haphazard pursuit of the robbers who stole his Atari, the whole time indulging his fellow Warriors’ kleptomaniac tendencies, fantasizing about unachievable sexual conquests, laughing at little boys who fall, and urinating on people and in elevators.
Early on in the novel, Peter is challenged to a game of stickball by Diego, the son of his building’s superintendent. After Peter is defeated, he’s compelled to fight Diego to defend the honor of a fellow member of the Warriors. Peter and Diego scuffle for several minutes. “But,” according to Peter, “when both of us are dead tired and huffing and puffing, Diego picks up his broomstick off the ground and comes charging at me. Sure, it’s sneaky. But he’s Puerto Rican, so I can’t really blame him. It’s in his genes.” Peter is all too aware of the ubiquitous racism and classism that define his neighborhood; unfortunately, for much of the novel, he doesn’t know better than to embrace them.
The most significant and exceptional feature of Las Cucarachas is Park’s effective and disciplined use of a first-person narrator. In this novel, it’s clear that Park doesn’t use his narrator-protagonist as a vehicle to put forth his own agenda, a feat that even the literary world’s most accomplished authors seldom achieve. Rather, Park wholeheartedly assumes Peter’s twelve-year-old personality to write this novel and unapologetically takes on all of his pre-teenage prejudices and misconceptions. Consequently, Peter recounts his tale without any retrospective wisdom or fancy MFA words- unlike several of Diaz’s narrators in Drown- and almost never betrays Park’s Swarthmore education. Instead of learning about the severity of urban life in the 1980s through the hindsight of an unsympathetic adult, readers hear Park’s story straight from the mouth of a sarcastic pre-teenage immigrant from Queens.
But while Park seamlessly develops Peter’s voice, something is unavoidable lost in a tale told by a twelve-year-old. Peter’s depictions of the book’s other characters-particularly his young friends and foes-are often two-dimensional and oversimplified. For example, Fatty, one of the members of the Warriors, is a humorous but unoriginal character who is part Piggy from Golding’s Lord of the Flies and part Virgil from Justin Lin’s movie about drugs and violence in wealthy suburban Asian-American communities, Better Luck Tomorrow.
By the end of the novel, most of the book’s conflicts remain unresolved and Peter is left friendless. Still, I can’t help but read Las Cucarachas’ ending as an optimistic one in light of Peter’s heightened mental awareness. In this novel, Park does more than showcase a harsh perspective of life in 1980s New York City. He offers readers an unflinching and unique perspective on the dark side of our contemporary society while retaining a subtle hope for some sort of begrudging multicultural harmony.
Hirsh Sawhney is the author of a forthcoming novel, South Haven, and the editor of a fiction anthology, Delhi Noir. He has written for The New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, and The TLS. He teaches at Wesleyan University.