The stories in Paul Yoon’s debut story collection are told with a placidity that belies their violence — reading “The Mountain” is like admiring a glowing sunset before realizing that what you’re really watching is a wildfire heading your way.
Children are shot. Men are blown up. Addiction and displacement abound. And yet Yoon maintains a gentle tone, not to soften his characters’ troubles but to encourage us to see them differently.
In “Still a Fire,” for instance, a man desperate for work in France after World War II takes a job as a minesweeper. The work’s dangers are obvious, but Yoon’s description is more lyrical than violent: “The dirt of the forest road rises into the air, dimming the sky with particles of color. It is like a swarm of bees.”
Yoon grasps the reader’s urge to root for heroism and survival, then slowly nudges us toward reality. All six stories in “The Mountain” play with this tension of how to describe loss and failure simply but without clichéd bluntness — his sentences read like Hemingway stripped of his machismo.
The narrator in “Milner Field” recalls his father telling a story about a friend who accidentally shot and killed his sister, forcing the family into self-imposed exile. They rend no garments and shed no tears in Yoon’s telling — they just wind up “vanishing into themselves.”
Yoon mastered this style in his 2013 debut novel, “Snow Hunters,” about a Korean War refugee seeking a quiet life in Brazil but shadowed by violent memories. Themes of war, distance and homecoming remain very much on his mind — his characters range from Russia to New York to China to Spain, often trying to reconnect with familiar childhood haunts.
But working at a smaller scale, Yoon sometimes has a more difficult time maintaining a balance between storytelling and atmospherics, leaning on a soft metaphor — a missed train stop, a drifting rowboat — when a firmer line would better highlight his characters’ crises. Even so, “The Mountain” is remarkable as it is, as close as the short story can get to poetry without losing its grip on plot. The people in its pages are struggling with the kind of crises that are hard to make concrete.
“What terrifies her is that she doesn’t know if this makes up a life,” a drug-addicted nurse asks herself in one story; “She thought about what she would like to do in another life,” asks the woman in the title story who’s made an ill-advised return to her Chinese homeland. Those are slippery, complicated questions, and Yoon understands that slippery, complicated stories are the most effective way to address them.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”
By: Paul Yoon.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 242 pages, $25.