O BEAUTIFUL (St. Martin’s, 320 pp., $27.99), Jung Yun’s mesmerizing and timely second novel, opens with one of the most uncomfortable scenes I’ve read in a long time. Elinor Hanson, a former model who is desperate to break into journalism, is on a plane bound for North Dakota, where she’s researching a story about how the oil boom has changed the landscape where she grew up. She’s jittery, nervous and wants to sleep, but her salesman seatmate is in the mood to schmooze. She rebuffs his cringe-inducing advances and he becomes miffed, then petulant. “I was only making conversation,” he says. “Don’t flatter yourself. You’re not my type.”
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When Elinor falls asleep, he does not stay on his side of the armrest. Welcome to the intersection of fear and trying to be polite, where a little red light of panic will blink in your peripheral vision for the duration of this novel.
Yun’s Mack truck of a story transports us to Avery, N.D., “where thousands of itinerant oil workers from recession-ravaged parts of the country” have descended “upon a town of 4,000 that was unprepared to take them in.” Elinor’s hotel is booked to the hilt. The local watering hole has a fraternity-basement vibe, with an air of desperation hanging over its mostly male clientele. Every resource — food, decency, kindness, peace, even air — is in short supply. Yun creates such a sense of claustrophobia, it’s as if the sky has been cranked down a few notches.
Elinor is in the area on behalf of the Standard, a Very Important Magazine, completing an assignment that was originally intended for her former professor and love interest, Richard, who has been waylaid by hip surgery. At his recommendation, she has been dispatched to conduct previously scheduled interviews and tell the story he envisioned: a postcard from a place altered by greed, desperation and competing interests.
But there’s more to the oil boom than meets the eye, and Elinor is well positioned to make sense of it. She’s both insider and outsider, having grown up on a nearby Air Force base as the daughter of an American officer and a Korean woman (who eventually bolted, leaving Elinor and her sister with their father). Yun writes, “For as long as she can remember, people have been pushing her out of one circle or another, making her feel less American, less Korean, and now even less North Dakotan than she thinks she is.”