American Woman
By Susan Choi
Published by HarperCollins 
August 2003; 0060542217; 384 pages

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American Woman by Susan Choi

Chapter One

Red Hook is little more than the junction of a couple of roads, with a farm store, a church and graveyard, a diner. And the post office, a small square cement building with RED HOOK NY 12571 spelled out in metal letters across the flat gray façade. He keeps flying through this sparse nexus of structures, first along the south-north road, then, when he finally manages to slow down and make the turn, along the east-west. He has the idea that the rest of the town must lie just farther on, and that the diner and farm store and church and post office are a far-flung outpost, but he keeps ending up twenty-odd miles away in front of a sign welcoming him to a new town, and so he keeps turning back and retracing his route. He doesn't even see houses in Red Hook, just fence lines along the roads, a dirt drive sometimes winding away. Some of the fences contain fields and some just grass and grazing animals, but everywhere there are smooth humps of hills and distant darknesses of untouched woodland, interesting vistas to the harried urban man. He's enjoying tearing up and down these roads, like swinging hard through the same arc again and again, and catching the same glimpse of the sorry little huddle at the center point, and he keeps at it for a while pointlessly, up down, zoom zoom, but finally he's forced to conclude that he's not missing anything. At the post office he parks and goes in to take a look at her box. If there were a tiny window in the little metal door he would stoop and peer in, but there isn't. At the diner he orders coffee and a jelly donut and tries to figure out where all the people live. A man in overalls asks another man at the counter how to get somewhere. "I'm from over-river," he explains. Back in his car Frazer studies the map. The Hudson lies west of here, about a ten-minute drive on these roads. Might be pretty. Frazer knows he is possessed of the skills to solve such problems as the one that lies before him. He can recognize, for example, that right now he is looking too hard at the wrong thing, and missing the point. He needs to do something else, maybe even give up for the day, find a bar and a motel, and start fresh in the morning. He should have realized that she wouldn't live here; she wouldn't want to be too near the post office. Yet she wouldn't want to travel too far. This is the sort of zero-sum compromise she makes all the time; Frazer knows this about her, having been subjected to the same flawed formulation. Trust Frazer or spurn him? A little of both? He notices, thinking of the man in overalls from over-river, that there aren't so many bridges: just four in the 150-mile stretch from the city to Albany. One lies due west of here, but Frazer's willing to bet that Jenny wouldn't cross the river for her mail. Too much traffic concentration, too confined; there's no good exit from a bridge. He puts an X on Red Hook, then estimates a half hour's driving distance and draws a circle around Red Hook with that radius. He does this mostly to amuse himself, but also because he believes in the inflexibility, predictability, knowability of people. They never stray far from their familiar realms of being. The most shocking act, closely examined, is just a louder version of some habitual gesture. No one is ever "out of character." That idea just makes Frazer laugh.


The next morning he rises early and nearly pulls the room down in the course of his exercise. He usually travels with a pair of very small, very heavy barbells, but when he finds himself without them he does other things. Five hundred jumping jacks. One-armed push-ups. He'll stand on his head for a while, and feel the pressure of the blood in his skull and the fumes of last night's alcohol steaming out of his pores. On this day he's well into the spirit of things when he grabs the bathroom door frame and pulls himself into the air, legs thrust forward a little because he's tall and the door frame is small. Then the molding around the frame -- after holding him for a beat during which he does nothing but hang there, blinking confusedly, as if sensing what's coming -- peels away with a terrible shriek of nails extracting from wood. Although the disaster is preceded by that beat, when it happens it happens all at once, before he can think or find his legs, and he lands heavily on his ass like a sack of grain. There is abrupt, alarming pain. He keels over sideways and lies there curled up, half of him on one side of the door and half of him on the other. He has the yellowish linoleum of the bathroom floor against his ear, and his face is contorted, partly an effort to keep the tears that have filled his eyes from streaming down his cheeks, but they do anyway.

He gives up and cries a little, quietly. In truth, sacrosanct as his exercise is, he is a little embarrassed by it -- perhaps because it is so sacrosanct. He remembers being surprised once by Mike Sorsa, in the apartment they'd shared in North Berkeley. He'd always waited until Sorsa left for class, and he'd heard the door slam downstairs and Sorsa's footsteps cross the creaking wood porch and drop onto the sidewalk, but on this morning, almost an hour after Sorsa had left, he'd unexpectedly come home. Frazer had been so deeply enveloped in his routine and in the music he'd put on to accompany himself he hadn't heard anything until Sorsa was standing there in the doorway ...

The foregoing is excerpted from American Woman by Susan Choi. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

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Susan Choi's first novel, The Foreign Student, was published to remarkable critical acclaim. The New Yorker called it "an auspicious debut," and the Los Angeles Times touted it as "a novel of extraordinary sensibility and transforming strangeness," naming it one of the ten best books of the year. American Woman, this gifted writer's second book, is a novel of even greater scope and dramatic complexity, about a young Japanese-American radical caught in the militant underground of the mid-1970s.

When 25-year-old Jenny Shimada steps out of the Rhinecliff train station in New York's Hudson Valley, the last person she expects to see is Rob Frazer, a shadowy figure from her previous life. On the lam for an act of violence against the American government, Jenny agrees to take on the job of caring for three younger fugitives whom Frazer has spirited out of California. One of them, the granddaughter of a wealthy newspaper magnate in San Francisco, has become a national celebrity. Kidnapped by a homegrown revolutionary group, Pauline shocked America when she embraced her captors' ideology, denouncing family and class to enlist in their radical cell.

American Woman unfolds the story of Jenny and her charges -- Pauline, Juan, and Yvonne, the remains of the busted revolutionary cadre -- as they pursue their destinies from an old farmhouse in upstate New York back to California. Provocative, suspenseful, and often wickedly comic, the novel explores the psychology of the young radicals -- outsiders all -- as isolation and paranoia inevitably undermine their ideals. American Woman is a tour de force with chilling resonance for readers today.

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Susan ChoiSusan Choi was born in Indiana to a Korean Immigrant father and a Russian Jewish mother, and after a brief time in Japan, grew up with her mother in Houston, Texas. She graduated from Yale with a BA in literature in 1990 and earned a masters in Fine ARt for Cornell. Her first novel, The Foreign Student, won the Asian-American Literary Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the Discover Great New Writers Award at Barnes & Noble. With David Remnick, she edited an anthology of fiction entitled Wonderful Town: New York Stories from the New Yorker. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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