Review by Willard Manus

Remember the name Yongsoo Park, because this Korean-born writer has published the best novel I've read since last year's Dirty Havana Trilogy by Juan Pedro Gutierrez. BOY GENIUS actually shares some similarities with the latter work: both deal with urban realities, are irreverent, graphic, disdainful of authority, and use language in a pungent, kinetic kind of way.

Park, who emigrated to the USA at a young age and was educated at Swathmore College, has created a unique hero for his freewheeling, picaresque first novel: a Korean child prodigy who becomes famous at the age of three. When his test scores prove to be the highest in the land, he is not only featured in magazines and newspapers but given his own TV show, The Boy Genius Hour.

"I starred in the show," Boy Genius explains, "alongside Choco Joe, an American G.I. whose skin was as black and glistening as the shiniest eggplant. Wearing a pair of red boxing shorts, he imitated animal sounds and played catchy melodies on his rusty harmonica. Together, we taught school-children from Pusan to Seoul the A-B-C's and English phrases like 'Commie bastards must be killed without mercy," "His Excellency the Most Honorable President Park speaks the will of his people,' and 'The U.S.A. is our number-one friend and ally in everything.'"

President Park, who is in fact a benevolent dictator, befriends Boy Genius, inviting him to his home to break bread and discuss affairs of state. Boy Genius is in awe of The Most Honorable Park and swears lifelong allegiance to him, only to be crushingly disillusioned a few years later when His Excellency turns on him, stripping him of his TV show and perks. His parents lose their jobs and "in just six months we ended up in a dark six-foot-by-six-foot aluminum box that sat on the worst plot in a village of make-shift shanties fashioned out of cardboard boxes and Coca-Cola bottles."

The fall from grace is so severe that Boy Genius and his parents must leave Korea for the USA, where they end up in New York's Spanish Harlem (called Bogota in the book). Here is Park's description of the place: "Bogota's residents were made up of Third World detritus, the poor and the disenfranchised who had made their way to the New World by traveling with nameless caravans from the world's most forgotten villages. Some had crossed oceans on makeshift rafts made of coconuts and burlap sacks. Others had obtained the necessary dog-eared documents from master forgers who passed on their ancient craft only to their firstborn. Still others had duped lonely Americans into marrying them with fleeting phrases recycled from old Hollywood movies. All had two things in common: their dirty brown skin smelled of sweat and strange spices, and their silent eyes held a thousand unspeakable secrets."

Boy Genius is soon initiated into the guerilla war being fought on Bogota's streets. He learns how to survive beatings, humiliation and insults while growing up and becoming a "wild dog" American. He is also driven by thoughts of revenging himself on His Excellency for his betrayal, only to reach the snapping point when the dictator's hit man, H-I-J, wreaks more havoc on his family.

Boy Genius' climb up out of the ghetto and into middle-class life is handled skilfully and satirically by the author, whose comic inventiveness reaches its high point when Boy Genius goes to Hiroshima (where he stays in the Enola Gray Hotel) and undergoes an operation that turns him into a new man. Gone are his Third World, Oriental features, replaced by a chiseled face, blue eyes, then lips and aquiline nose. It leads to success in the business world, marriage, a reunion with Choco Joe and other key figures from his Korean youth--including his implacable enemy, the spook who turned His Excellency against him.

Park treats all this in blackly comic fashion, poking sardonic fun every step of the way at class, race, fascism, hero-worship,
politics, sex, love, human vanity. And in Boy Genius he has created a unique hero, one who is every bit as memorable as Alexander Portnoy, Augie March or Ignatius Reilly.