Befitting the confessions of its opiate-eating narrator, Nami Mun’s first novel has a junkie’s jumbled sense of chronology. Unfolding in the New York City of the 1970s and ’80s, Miles from Nowhere contains a surfeit of period references (eight-track tapes and Riunite on ice), but the narrative moves back and forth in time so fluidly that it seems to take place, as the title suggests, in a province all its own.
The narrator is Joon, the daughter of bickering Korean immigrants, who runs away at thirteen, after her father has abandoned her and her mother. Although Joon can’t decide which parent’s behavior precipitated the split—Dad is a serial philanderer, Mom is mentally unstable—she is accustomed to blaming the latter’s bizarre outbursts. And so in recounting her tale of addiction, Joon must confront her guilt—after all, she abandoned her mother, too.
When the book opens, the young Joon has just left her Bronx home and is living in a shelter. She’s not yet “using,” but with lessons from her more jaded friends Knowledge and Wink, she’s already learning to hustle. Knowledge, the most fully developed character besides Joon, is a repository of hard-knock, five-borough wisdom: “Life’s only as bad as you make it out to be. It’s got nothing to do with the way it is.” In the first of many well-drawn, and often very funny, set pieces, Joon finds work as an escort at Club Orchid, where “Knowledge was dealing” and “Wink was winking.” But hooking doesn’t suit Joon’s harsh, sarcastic personality. Although she tries to hold down legitimate jobs, most memorably as an Avon lady, she earns her living as a petty thief.
Miles from Nowhere is essentially a picaresque (at one point, Joon is engrossed in a copy of Gulliver’s Travels that she has fished out of a trash can), and the novel’s episodic structure plays to Mun’s strengths. Her spare, direct prose is ideal for the many intimate moments in which a strung-out, miles-from-here Joon communicates with others. The most affecting scene in the book may be the awkward visit she pays to an employment agency after finally sobering up. Dismissed as unemployable, she refuses to leave the office until given a chance. “How are you at math?” the white male interviewer finally asks. Her dry reply: “I’m Korean, so . . .”
While many such scenes are freighted with meaning, the fragmentary quality of Mun’s novel too often curtails the accumulation of deeper resonance. Though we come to care about the character, Mun doesn’t convincingly put the broken pieces of Joon’s story back together, which makes it impossible to understand her recovery from addiction. In the closing chapter, Joon returns to the house she fled, now boarded up, hoping that it’s “a place to begin.” The same might be said of Mun, whose debut, though it feels incomplete, isn’t a bad start.