By the time Paul Yoon was born in New York in 1980, the United States was done fighting in Asia, and Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were busy fabricating their reputations as master statesmen. But Yoon’s family offered a portal through years of national amnesia and obfuscation. “The Korean War is personal to me,” he once said. His grandfather and young father escaped to the south during the fighting. Much of his fiction, starting in 2009 with his first story collection, “Once the Shore,” revolves around the experience of war and vicissitudes of flight.
Soon after that collection appeared, the National Book Foundation named Yoon one of its 5 Under 35, an annual award for promising young writers that’s as much speculation as recognition. In Yoon’s case, the foundation was clearly prophetic.
Though presented as a novel, “Run Me to Earth” is a tightly integrated collection of six masterfully written stories. It begins in 1969 in a Laotian valley called the Plain of Jars, where the sound of bombings is so frequent that nobody hears them anymore. A gracious farmhouse, abandoned by its French owner, is the site of a makeshift hospital offering what little medical attention the exhausted staff can manage with dwindling supplies and intermittent electricity. Surrounded by unexploded cluster bombs, the hospital has no shortage of mangled patients, who arrive on foot or in wheelbarrows — sometimes blown to bits as they approach the building.
“Run Me to Earth” focuses on three teenagers — Alisak, Prany and his sister, Noi — who have known nothing but war most of their lives. Their parents either succumbed to opium or were shot, leaving them to wander the country as a tightknit trio. Relief arrives when a nurse spots the orphans sleeping near a river and asks whether they can drive motorbikes. In that moment, they become accidental partisans in a conflict they know nothing about. “The vehicle that pulled up to recruit them could have been from the other side and they wouldn’t have cared if it meant, on that day, the promise of shelter and food,” Yoon writes. “Because they were children who had nowhere else to go. And because, for what seemed like the first time, the people who had approached them had been kind.” Suddenly, working as couriers and orderlies, the three orphans are earning more money in a day than they used to make in a month.
Yoon’s perspective shifts nimbly from one teenager to another, catching the currents of delight, confusion or terror flitting through this “orbit of chaos.” The farmhouse, once the center of a lucrative tobacco plantation, is now a fragment of its former glory, a surreal mix of fresh gore and abandoned art. The night air is as likely to be disturbed by cries and helicopters as the sounds of the piano on the second floor. Alisak knows better than to say it out loud, “but he felt as though he could stay here with them in the madness of this house forever. He thought there would be nothing better,” Yoon writes. “The three of them always together.”
We know, of course, how impossible that modest dream is for these three young friends working in the most dangerous spot on Earth. But Yoon’s narration is so closely pared, so free of excess drama that when violence rips through these lives, it feels especially shocking. In a sense, he’s re-created the psychological experience of battle: the weird interludes of happiness and boredom suddenly shattered by incomprehensible disorder.
From this spellbinding beginning, “Run Me to Earth” progresses over a half century. Jumping across decades and continents, the chapters delineate the trajectories of lives ricocheting across the world. Yoon follows Alisak, Prany and Noi as they struggle to survive, grasp for shreds of justice — or retribution — and attain whatever peace they can. Prany realizes that he has been so repeatedly displaced that “it was impossible for him now to define a home.”
Individually, the chapters exercise hypnotic intensity, but the overall effect is even more profound. With his panoramic vision of the displacements of war, Yoon reminds us of the people never considered or accounted for in the halls of power. Hearing bits of a speech by President Johnson, they ask, What on earth is a domino? What does your Cold War have to do with us?
Yoon makes us care deeply about these adolescents and what happens to them. For all that he eventually reveals, some details are forever dropped between the shifting plates of survivors’ memories. That’s cruel, but like everything else here, entirely true to the lives of people scattered by war.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
Run Me to Earth
By Paul Yoon
Simon & Schuster. 259 pp. $26