'Miles From Nowhere' By Nami Mun
Reviewed by Renee Graham
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.