Don’t let the innocent-looking boy on the cover of David Yoo‘s The Choke Artist: Confessions of a Chronic Underachiever fool you into thinking this hilarious memoir about coming of age Asian in a sea of white faces is for the same audiences as his YA novels, Girls for Breakfast and Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before, or his middle-grade novel, The Detention Club. The cringe-worthy comedy of The Choke Artist gets pretty graphic with its escalating, self-deprecating, true confessions, ranging from high school through his post-college years. It is definitely adult reading! Perhaps perfect for the “New Adult” audience, but its themes of identity and belonging will resonate with adults of all ages.
I recently met David Yoo at a library conference in Cambridge, Mass., not far from his current home. When he arrived for the Speed Dating with the Massachusetts Must-Read Authors event, I welcomed him and blurted out, “I’m reading your book right now!” (I was only about 30 or so pages in, at the time.) He turned pale and briefly put a hand over his eyes. “Don’t tell me that!” he pleaded.
A few weeks later, reading farther along in The Choke Artist, I realized the horror he might have felt at this middle-aged librarian, possibly the age of his mother, reading his stories of juvenile delinquency, teenage lust, sibling rivalry, and longing to belong. Not to mention that I might take umbrage as a fellow parent at all the jokes he makes at his parents’ expense. (Just now, though, I checked Wikipedia, and I would have had to give birth at age 13 to be his mother. So relax, Dave!) I’m sure quite a few of these stories of his reckless youth and undersexed college days are wild exaggerations, in any case. At least, I hope so, for his sake. (And for his poor mother’s!)
The book reads like stand-up comedy and purports to explain the author’s need to be an underachiever, both in response to his older sister’s being a “model minority” who played the violin and “studied her tail off” and to his “full-blown, deep-seated ambivalence towards my ethnicity.”
Here’s how the book begins, with a chapter entitled Gangs of New England. The author is attending high school in Avon, Connecticut, which according to City-Data.com, is 93.6% white.
I formed my first posse junior year of high school. There were three of us: me, my best friend, Jay, and his best friend, Chris. What initially brought us together was our mutual love of rap music. That, and we were three of the bigger losers at Avon High. Previously, I’d been a member of the elite soccer crew. It was the main sport in school – the football team sucked, and at one point the varsity soccer team was ranked second in the country, according to the USA Today national rankings. Just being on team carried serious social cachet, but I didn’t get along with the coach at all, and startlingly soon after quitting I had a major falling-out with my friends and found myself temporarily sitting by myself at lunch. I needed new compadres, fast, and the only two guys in school who weren’t part of an established clique already were Jay and Chris.
They hung out by themselves because they didn’t play sports, and on top of that, they were from the poor part of town. Or relatively poor, at least. Avon was absurdly wealthy, so to clarify: by “poor” I mean “squarely ensconced in the middle class.” But within the utterly unrealistic microcosm of society that was Avon, they were the closest thing to burnouts at our school. While most guys were working up a sweat playing sports or freely making out with one another in the privacy of drama rehearsal, these two still rode Mongoose dirt bikes with plastic fluorescent green pegs on both sides of their back tires, practicing bunny hops and rail slides outside Chucky’s food store on West Avon Road after school. Suffice it to say, socially this was a giant step down for me, but I desperately needed a new crew, and they were my only viable option.
I was stunned when I found out they listened to rap music, too. I’d tagged them as typical skate punks, whereas it made perfect sense that I would get obsessed with rap, since I was the closest thing to a black kid in town. Well, there actually was one real black kid in my grade, but definitely anytime he was out sick from school I was easily the next best thing, simply due to the fact that – as an Asian kid – I was pretty much the only other male student of color within town limits. Although now I can see how he might secretly have resented it, back then I was always deeply jealous of the fact that everyone assumed the black kid was tough just for being black, while my skin tone suggested to everyone that I was a bookish nerd destined to one day steal engineering jobs from them before getting selected as an alternate for the Olympic table tennis team. Nobody would believe that I was in reality a C student and an utter nightmare for my parents at home, and this glaring oversight distressed me no end.
The Choke Artist was recently selected by Massachusetts Book Award judges as a 2013 Must Read nonfiction title, out of books published in 2012 either by a Massachusetts author or having a Massachusetts theme. If you enjoy humorous memoirs along the lines of David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs, or Mindy Kaling, you’ll probably enjoy laughing and cringing your way through The Choke Artist, too.
The Choke Artist
Grand Central, 2012
$13.99 US / $15.50 CAN
Disclosure: I borrowed this book through my public library network.