August 5, 2015 § Leave a comment
Foreigners (Waeguk) by Mark Rapacz is not the sort of book we normally talk about on this blog. While there are parts of it that are funny—in a nervous, laugh at the gallows sort of way—it is mostly as serious as a knife in the gut. But Mark is a writer who I have admired for many years and whose diverse work I always enjoy, so when New Pulp Press offered me a review copy of his latest novel, I jumped at the chance, regardless of how far it was out of The Oldest Jokes in the World normal purview.
Foreigners (Waeguk) is a gritty crime novel set in South Korea, following the Ben, a young American, as he realizes again and again he’s deeper into the underworld of Korean crime than his naive pride initially let him believe. At the start of the novel, he’s an English teacher by day as the criminal family he works for launders money through a school; by night, he thinks of himself as a prop: just a big Midwestern piece of muscle, threatening because of his size and status as a foreigner. But by the end of the novel, he becomes intimate not just with the reality of his life of crime, but violence on the global scale of empires.
There is plenty of great action in the novel—gruesome gunplay and hard-boiled hand-to-hand combat—but it is intercut with insightful and gorgeous writing. Ben is a great protagonist and great narrator, both sensitive and full of rage, the product of having to fight for himself as an out of the closet teen in a conservative farm town. Ben’s anger, often exacerbated by alcohol, helps drive the plot, but just as often, it fuels a passage of scorching, brutal insight into the injustices of our world: “I was stealing its children, culturally, ceaselessly, daily, so they could grow up and speak impeccable English and get good jobs and Samsung or Hyundai or LG or, better yet, leave the country and go to a pristine American university and maybe come back to continue to build the country their parents fought and died for, the little tip of this little peninsula that they claimed for themselves, had defended for centuries from the Chinese and the Japanese, and when it looked like they were truly fucked, they had these Americans—these GIs—these waeguks who flew in and fought with them and then did not leave.”
Like Ben and the rest of the complex characters in the cast, the novel is fueled in equal measure by the urge to empathize and the urge to destroy. As such, Foreigners (Waeguk) is an unsettling but satisfying read, well worth your time. Get it here. And if you need a laugh after, check out Mark’s hilarious L’Toilettes d’ Alcatraz, a must for any modern coffee table.