Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000–02, Madagascar 2002–03)
CHARLES HOBBIE’S RECENTLY RELEASED memoir of his Peace Corps service in Korea, The Time of the Monkey, Rooster, and Dog, is an engaging and gentle book. I’ve been accused of offering undue praise in these reviews, and while that’s been occasionally true, I’ll gladly put all my critical capital on the line when I say that this book deserves attention, and Hobbie, accolades for the quality of his writing. As with any reviewer in this day of too many books, the review stack waiting for me is always a small Tower of Babel, most of the voices within, tinny. Hobbie’s book is the reward for the chore, the diamond in the coal mine.
I suppose my question is, “Where did a wonk like Hobbie learn to write like this?” He does at least four things as well as any writer I’ve read, and I’m including folks like Hessler and Theroux in this compliment. Hobbie paints delicate and precise landscapes, taking the reader to a poverty-stricken, industrializing Korea of the late 1960s. His character descriptions are rounded and intimate. He writes about unrequited love with restrained emotion, free of melodrama. More than anything else, Hobbie succeeds where so many others fail to tread: he looks past himself in his examination of this important period of his life to focus his lens on the people and place. This book is about Hobbie as a young man in the Peace Corps, yes. But mostly, it’s about Korea.
And what an interesting Korea it was. Serving as an English teacher at Kyungpouk National University in the urban center of Daegu from 1969 to 1971, Hobbie was witness to dramatic changes, a nation lifting itself up by its bootstraps after many decades of occupation and strife. Not only does he chronicle what it was like to serve in the Peace Corps as the war in Vietnam raged and unrest mounted at home, the constant backdrop in this book is the political stress going on in the Korean Peninsula at that time. The streets of Daegu are often filled with protesting students and military convoys, North Korean soldiers regularly cross the DMZ to kill handfuls of South Korean and American servicemen alike, planes are hijacked, naval war games shatter the beauty of the coast, and benign conversations in beer halls quickly raise political hackles in a place always playing a frightening game of brinkmanship with the North.
The book begins with Hobbie in Madison, Wisconsin, and his relationship with “the girl he left behind,” one Dariel Rousar, who, from the photograph he’s included, quite literally may have been one of the great dark-eyed beauties of history. Hobbie manages to capture their quietest moments of parting against the lovely, autumnal backdrop of the University of Wisconsin without any of the usual sap. Quickly, we’re in bright Hawaii, where Peace Corps training then included calisthenics and the awful specter of “deselection.” If there is one criticism of the book, it’s that it’s too long, that Hobbie has recorded too many superfluous details important to him, but not the reader, either due to an unusually photographic memory, or a dusty journal opened beside him as he wrote. Nevertheless, we’re soon in Korea, where he rooms in the attic of a devout Korean Presbyterian family, and begins teaching at the university.
The book is filled with humor, the cultural missteps of being foreign in a place unaccustomed to it. Pretty, shy co-eds overcome timidity to beg him for help with English “oral intercourse.” A plucky Korean colleague demands to know the meaning of “French kissing” and “blow jobs.” Hobbie fends off endless assaults by flirtatious bar girls who happily point out how large his nose seems to them, how hairy his body. There are the required visits to temples that he manages to make fresh; anger enters the book on occasion, such as when he’s ripped off in a Seoul back alley.
Halfway through his service, Hobbie is surprised to discover that many of his fellow Volunteers find Koreans aggressive and unwelcoming (indeed, half of them leave early). It’s here that Hobbie’s ability to overlook minor slights and focus on the good Korea has to offer him that the success of his service, and his memoir, comes most clear. Hobbie made a choice to like Korea, even when his time there was sometimes difficult. By the end of his service, he achieves that state of mind so common to Peace Corps Volunteers who last: the faces of the Koreans around him have become more familiar, attractive, and comforting than his own.
A great many [things] not here when I arrived in 1969, appeared . . . Ford and German cars and trucks . . . Pepsi Cola and Coca-Cola . . . So many other signs of fantastically rapid modernization were everywhere — new hotels in Seoul . . . new elevated highways . . . parks, plazas, and shopping centers . . . . [T]he hippy look had arrived . . . . In the fields, I saw small tractors and other farm equipment that had replaced ox-drawn plows and carts. Korea was changing so rapidly, right before my eyes, that sometimes it was painful.
Maybe for this reason, Hobbie actively sought out the rural experience when he could, helping to build a health clinic on the impoverished island of Geoje, and traveling the countryside. After strolling some miles with a weathered, village elder, Hobbie offers this reflection:
It was a simple encounter on a dark, dirt road . . . . As I walked back, I felt as though I might be in fourteenth century England, perhaps on a road to Canterbury, walking past fields, woods, and small houses lit by candles and oil lamps . . . .I felt fortunate to be on a kind of pilgrimage myself . . . lucky to be able to communicate with the people in their own language.
A typical example of the beauty of his landscape writing comes from a reflective period on remote Geoje:
At night, in the waters around the peninsula and on all sides of the pier, blooms of luminescent dinoflagellates flashed when disturbed, sending ripples of light across the water into the darkness. I had never before seen anything like this. When we went swimming, our bodies were seemingly outlined in phosphorescence. Stones we skipped across the water’s surface created moving patterns of light . . . I couldn’t help thinking that the ripples of light reflected my experiences so far in Korea. What had been an unknown sea of dark prior to Peace Corps . . . was aglow in the quiet Korean night wherever I touched it.
Finally, a long friendship with a beautiful Korean nurse, Shin Young-ei, turns to romantic longing when Hobbie finds himself uncomfortably back home in his native Buffalo.
I began a month of intense, anguished introspection . . . I missed the status I was accorded in Korea, where I had been stared at, treated as an honored guest, and accorded respect as a university teacher. At home . . . no one stared at me. No one noticed me . . . . My position in society was essentially meaningless . . . . My resulting depression was debilitating.
It’s no surprise, then, when this time he does not leave the girl behind, but finds and marries her.
I don’t know what single word I’d like to use to summarize my final feeling of Hobbie’s fine book. Enriched? Enlightened? His last line is as earned as it is wrenching. I won’t spoil it for future readers by quoting it here, but of his book, here’s the word I’ll choose at last: Greater. That’s how I feel for having read it.
Charles A. Hobbie served as a Peace Corps English teacher in Korea from 1969-1971. He was Peace Corps Korea Training Staff in Vermont 1971, Peace Corps OSS Officer 1972, PC CDO Korea 1972-1978, and PC CDO Thailand 1974-1978. He currently serves as Peace Corps Associate General Counsel, and lives in Virginia.
Reviewer Tony D’Souza’s (Ivory Coast 2000-2002, Madagascar 2002-2003) third novel, Mule, released last month to praise from Vanity Fair, Gawker, The San Francisco Chronicle, and was optioned for film. A Guggenheim recipient, Tony has contributed to many magazines, TV, and radio. He lives in St. Louis with his wife and two young children. His website is: TonyDSouza.com .
To order The Time of the Monkey, Rooster, and Dog from Amazon, click on the book cover or the bold book title — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that helps support our awards.