A New York City deli is as essential for a New Yorker’s survival as the subway. In fact, writes Ben Ryder Howe—a former senior editor at The Paris Review—it’s not uncommon for customers to visit their local deli five or six times a day to get their fix of cheap coffee, lottery tickets and tall cans of Bud Light. The thirtysomething author ought to know: his wife Gab bought (with the money the couple had saved for a down payment on their first house) her hard-working Korean parents a deli in Brooklyn as a gesture of thanks for all their self-sacrifice. What follows is a series of both comic and tragic vignettes that will leave the reader as surprised as the author about how emotionally invested you can get in a deli.
Helping Howe harness the drama is sweet Kay, his 55-year-old chain-smoking “frighteningly strong compulsive non-procrastinator” mother-in-law who is the convenience store maestro. But because Kay can’t single-handedly run the deli, Ben and Gab, who’ve had to move into the basement of her parents’ home on account of their savings being depleted, chip in when they can. For Ben, that requires hoofing it from his in-laws’ to George Plimpton’s Upper East Side townhouse, which doubles as the Paris Review’s office—a chasm “like going from the set of a Korean Married with Children to one of those three-page fold-out magazine advertisements for Ralph Lauren,” and then to Brooklyn in the evening to man the deli’s cash register. These disparate worlds, along with the culture clash between Ben’s WASP roots and his in-laws’ no-nonsense mentality, makes for great storytelling. Throw in a cast of Seinfeld-like deli regulars and Ben and Gab trying to start a family in a crowded household that doesn’t care for knocking on doors, and the result is a tender comedy of errors. Howe, who only falters near the end when he leaves too little space to wrap up too many story arcs, delivers a smartly written narrative about love, literature, and the lengths one goes to for family, which turns out to be epically far.