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Author Jeffrey Miller's No Way Out evokes 1990s expat experience in Korea

Updated: Jun 19

When asked to review Jeffrey Miller's No Way Out ― a soon-to-be-released crime fiction novel set against the backdrop of Seoul in the 1990s ― the old expat in me formed expectations from the get-go of how the writer would present a Korea of the past through the eyes of a foreign national.

Miller has lived in Korea for over three decades and has a bibliography of at least 10 books, a number of which have centrally Korean themes. No Way Out, published by Winding Road Stories, is this reviewer's first experience with his work.

In "No Way Out," from the first sentence, the tone is set explicitly as the protagonist, Robert, wakes up from a boozy night in an unfamiliar bed next to a corpse and begins a descent into his very own expat nightmare ― one in which he will battle for his freedom and ultimately his own life.

Rewind, Robert, a 32-year-old American with an MA in English, is leading an unsatisfying life until he sees a possibility for something new, when he lands himself an EFL teaching job in Korea. With a pocketful of street smarts accumulated from a stint in the military, he hits the ground running while coming to terms with a new land, language, culture and "justice" system as he pleads his innocence in the wake of events that left one unlucky sex worker dead.

Among the cast of key characters, the Korean patriarchy is well-represented. We have active and retired police officers, a prosecutor, a public defender lawyer, businessmen-cum-gangsters, brothel operators, prostitutes, foreign diplomats and language academy operators and staff in the mix.

The author conveys well the corruption of a Confucian-flavored culture as it undergoes psychological integration with its growing international status as an economic powerhouse.

The writer unfolds the story at a rapid pace with Korea-related observations giving a sense of strong familiarity with the details of the country in a bygone era ― politically, geographically and socially. At times, it's easy to forget just how fast Korea progresses, and references to aspects of daily life here in the 1990s that carried over even only so far as briefly into the next decade are aplenty ― not to mention some that still apply.

The writer creates images for the reader of parts of the Yongsan and Gangnam districts that are believable to the extent that they rouse memories for this reviewer.

Miller's story is interspersed with occasional references to Korean given or place names and infrequent romanized reported Korean speech, which may or may not appeal to some readers. For example, Gimpo is Kimpo, a sign of the times to be sure. Some readers will find it "Gwenchanayo" or OK ― if finding that word in that phrase didn't annoy you then you're good to go! But others may find it a tad inconsistent, irritating and difficult to decipher. However, it shouldn't take away from the story too much.

At around 250 pages, No Way Out is a light, quick-paced and entertaining read for those with an interest or curiosity in a foreigner's experience of South Korea in the final decade of the 20th century. While I wouldn't go quite as far as to call it a historical document, it may trigger a walk down memory lane for some long-time Korea expats or those who may have lived here and since moved on. The author clearly depicts some of the "seedier" aspects of Itaewon when it had outwardly illegally operating brothels, a heavy U.S. military presence and higher-level police corruption. Miller also captures the "fresh off the boat" experience for many who have arrived in Korea as native English instructors.

I suspect Jeffrey Miller may have a few more stories in him to tell about Korea.


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