By THOMAS MOODY
The opening paragraph of Preparation for the Next Life, by Atticus Lish, could be taken for a Bruce Springsteen lyric, such is its brevity of language, precision of detail and stark poetics. In a few lines, Lish’s extraordinary debut novel opens up the stage for a classic American tale of the wayfarer, the drifter, the loner.
She came by way of Archer, Bridgeport, Nanuet, worked off 95 in jeans and a denim jacket, carrying a plastic bag and shower shoes, a phone number, waiting beneath an underpass, the potato chips long gone, lightheaded.
There is, however, nothing conventional about the novel, which is a love story, war story, jailhouse story, immigrant story, a story about the smallness of the world and the vastness of Queens. In bare and beautiful language, and with an eye wiped entirely clean of sentimentality, Lish crafts a sense of place that is exhaustive and explicit, it makes strange and foreign what was once familiar and known. In astonishing minutiae, every color, scent, texture, taste of Queens is cataloged. It is the Queens of the marginalized, the underclass, the food workers and day laborers, $40 masseuses, cheap pedicurists, deli workers, street vendors—the people whose work from which we reap our benefits, but whom we rarely see or seldom hear. Preparation for the Next Life gives a voice to these people, and in doing so, gives a voice to the borough of Queens, in its myriad accents.
You could do anything—sell toys, oranges, ice in the summer, phone cards so that people could call home. Singapore. Philippines. Yemen. Iraq. Ivory Coast. Salvador. You could give out flyers for all-you-can-eat, compramos d’oro—get a cart and roll it over hill.
The novel opens with Zou Lei, a Muslim woman from a remote part of northwest China who has immigrated to the United States illegally. After traveling north from Mexico, working several grueling, underpaid jobs, staying in Motel 8s, sometimes with six workers to a room, the TV always running to practice English, she is picked up in an immigration sweep and put in jail. No charge, no lawyer, no trial. She loses track of days and is then suddenly released without explanation. She finds her way to Flushing, where “everyone was illegal just like her.”
It is here she meets Skinner, a U.S. Army veteran who has finished his third tour of duty in Iraq. He is battle-scarred from the outside in: After suffering an injury to his back from mortars during a firefight that devastated the rest of his unit, he is sent back twice to the front line. Both times he is stop-lossed, a controversial policy that forcibly retains members of the armed forces on active duty beyond their original agreed period of enlistment. With each subsequent month at war, his morale and sanity diminish, mirroring the nation’s diminishing interest and confidence in its involvement in Iraq. When he returns home loaded with alcohol, prescription pills and PTSD, he is as much a stranger in America as Zou Lei. For a month, Skinner bounces around Queens flophouses and dive bars, spending his first night on home-soil in the upstairs of a McDonald’s at the charity of the restaurant’s janitor. Thank you for your service, indeed.
Meeting Zou Lei outside her Chinatown noodle shop gives him grounding. Zou Lei, whose father was in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, is automatically attracted to Skinner’s army fatigues. Love between the two develops. Skinner moves into more permanent digs, the basement of a working-class Irish-American family’s home in Flushing. Horizons begin to expand as each represents the possibility of salvation to the other’s existential threat: For Zou Lei, her strong American veteran offers her protection from deportation; for Skinner, Zou Lei’s affection is a panacea for the anxiety caused by his trauma. Queens begins to transform before their eyes.
When they made it to the rise where Jewel Avenue crossed over the fields and they could see in all directions—the old condominium towers, the sheets of water, the rooftops and the distance—they stopped and looked at it all. They were at the center of a wheel. Skinner put his arms around her.
That’s a view, he said.
The story is complicated by the arrival of Jimmy, the son of Skinner’s landlord. After a decade in prison, he has returned home overly aggressive, lazy, antisocial. A Queens native, he’s had numerous stints in Rikers and out-of-state penitentiaries, which have transformed his home into a place as foreign to his new sensibility as China or Iraq.
Rikers could make you deaf. It made him smell. For weeks after his release, he shouted. It turned his volume up. He finds himself in exchanges with other men on the subway or the street who had passed through the jail. In hoarse rattling voices, they shouted about mayhem or the riots or the way it had been worse five years ago before the reforms. They found each other by the way they spoke in public, in the line outside the unmarked entrance in Ozone Park where Jimmy waited with the other offenders, wearing sweatshirts over their heads and blowing vapor in the cold, shuffling upstairs to give his number and get his pills, as part of the terms of his release.
His time locked up taught him to treat everyone with suspicion, and he is especially wary of Skinner, whom he sees as his usurper in his mother’s house. The abrasive presence of Jimmy leaves blemishes on Skinner and Zou Lei’s relationship, and the briefly forgotten hazards begin to resurface.
Published in 2015 and set in the middle years of the Bush administration, Preparation for the Next Life confronts issues that are still the most urgent failures of American domestic and foreign policy: immigration, war, prisons, mental health, drugs, poverty. It is writing from the bottom up. With graphic poeticism, Lish gives a portrait to a side of America that has for too long gone unseen. But without an ounce of sentimentality, the novel still manages to provide hope. This is America, after all. Wars can be recovered from, immigrant communities take root and thrive, discrimination is confronted. And where else but America could a story of such diverse origins take place? And where else in America but Queens, as seen through the eyes of Skinner for the first time?
Liquor store, groceria, Iglesias de Dios. From somewhere, there was Spanish music. Taillights shot by him and over a bridge. He crossed beneath the highway, in a great tall vault of dark, the steel being knocked by vehicles going over, and climbed pigeonshit-splattered stairs, coming to rooftop level, billboard level—cash for your car—and then he was looking at Manhattan across the black water, a postcard view with all the lights and just the sheer scale of it, the sky violet with energy.