28 Nov / The Sense of Wonder by Matthew Salesses [in Shelf Awareness]
PEN/Faulkner finalist Matthew Salesses, a transracial Korean adoptee, again distills his own experiences with race and (e)masculinity for laudable literary inspiration in The Sense of Wonder. His intricate novel spotlights three basketball players at different points of their careers – starting out, at the pinnacle, and over – along with a Korean American television producer who’s dating the rookie.
Won Lee is a Princeton-educated, all-Ivy conference MVP point guard now with the New York Knicks. Perhaps his name was prescient: he’s won enough to be the one and only Asian American in the NBA. He’s playing with his idol “Powerball!” (né Paul Burton), who’s Black – but then Powerball! gets hurt. While Powerball! is out, Won dominates for seven straight victories. Powerball!’s return might be great for the fans, not so for “the Wonderboy.”
Watching Won and Powerball! from the stands is ESPN reporter Robert Sung. He’s a Korean adoptee whose white mother abandoned him, then his white father discarded him. Sung “had grown up wanting to be the first Asian American superstar”; his hopes weren’t far off – he was Powerball!’s notable high school sidekick, destined for a Division I scholarship until a career-ending knee injury. Sung is now the “biggest advocate, his press cheerleader” for Powerball!
Off the court, Sung introduces Won to Carrie Kang, who doesn’t actually love basketball. She’s a Korean American TV producer working to bring K-dramas to U.S. masses, and more Asian American screen representation overall. Their relationship might be open but Won quickly moves in with her – for practical reasons. Between living in New York and shooting episodes in Seoul, Carrie starts mourning her sister who’s dying of cancer.
Won’s career hinges on an elusive contract his bigoted coach dangles but won’t produce. Won and Powerball! get caught in the media’s Asian/Black divides. Sung is never quite trustworthy about safeguarding what is on and off the record. Carrie’s newest baller series pitch might ruin careers. Power plays loom. An irreparable implosion is inevitable – who survives is an intense gamechanger to anticipate.
Salesses (Disappear, Doppelgänger, Disappear; Craft in the Real World) moves, fakes, and pivots his narrative with practiced, sly expertise. He cracks inappropriate jokes, waxes philosophical, details (biological and adopted) family dysfunction, confronts cultural history, deciphers the tropes, and plots complex dramas, all while deftly exposing pervasive racism and sexism in two of the worst, inequitable industries. And yet, he also manages to impart an easy, welcoming bluntness: “What Won made Asian Americans feel was mimetic wonder.” Social ills notwithstanding, who can argue with that?
Shelf Talker: In this intricate novel, Matthew Salesses slyly exposes the rise – and pivot – of the only Asian American player in the NBA.