The Boozer


By Ch'oe Inhon
 "Whenever a shot of that rotgut washed the inside of his
ever insatiable mouth he knew just how much more dense his
life was going to get" (Ch'oe, 109). Ch'oe Inho's The
Boozer offers a dismal glimpse into the life of the lower
classes during the period of Korean modernization. Although
"The Boozer" was written in the 1960s, the story does not
provide an allegorical account of particular events during
the authoritarian rule of Park Chung Hee. Rather, Ch'oe
uses the setting of a working class community to convey the
suffering of an orphan boy over the loss of his parents
during one of his escapades into the tavern life of the
town. In addition, Ch'oe withholds from the reader the most
important piece of information, that the boy indeed has no
living parents, until the end of the story. Through a
clever manipulation of information, The Boozer accomplishes
the latter task, while giving us a vivid sense of the boy's
traumatic memory of his parents' deaths and of the desolate
life of the working class community.
In the first few pages of the story, we are lead to believe
that the boy is looking for his father to call him home to
the bedside of his dying wife. The boy informs the drinkers
in the tavern that he has seen his mother's condition
worsen and that she has sent him to get her husband. But
even before this, Ch'oe has already dropped a subtle hint
that the father is gone. Here is how the boy describes his
father: "Why, you'd know him! He has a great big mole over
one eye. He always smelled like onions, and he always went
around with cloves of garlic in his back pocket. And, they
said he always cried when he drank." (104) 
The boy starts his description in the present tense and
shifts to the past tense as he recounts details about his
father's habits. This passage alone casts the first shadow
of doubt on the "living" status of the father. In
particular, the phrase "they said he...." suggests that the
boy experienced his father's death at an early age and
knows him partly from reputation. This use of the past
tense may be too subtle to notice upon a first reading and
even the impression that the father may be long gone is
erased as the boy later speaks about his father in the
present tense. There are numerous other indicators that
mislead us into believing the authenticity of the boy's
mission. For example, the boy is quite determined in his
mission. "I'll look all night.... If I can just find my
father, everything will be okay. My father's different
from you people. Father may be a boozer, but there's
nothing he can't do if he sets his mind to it. You know,
once he took copper and made it into gold. Gold!" (105). 
In this passage we also encounter the boy's genuine
admiration for his father and the security the thought of
his father provides, as if the latter were alive and well,
waiting for his son to find him. In addition, he shows
concern about his father's sobriety, so that the latter can
face the serious moment of his wife's death in full
possession of his faculties. There is one moment where it
appears that the father may have already returned to his
wife and, after her death, gone back out to drink: "Your
father left, kid. Said he was going to the widow's tavern"
(107). The inconsistency here is that the boy is
unperturbed by the barmaid's usage of the word "widow."
But, given his drunken state, we may forgive the boy for
overlooking this. 
Later, as the boy continues wandering through the town, we
are informed that "He knew well where it was he was going
to. He had never forgotten this route, no matter how drunk
he got" (112). This is the first direct hint that the boy's
actions are not spontaneous attempts to find his father but
a part of a well-established routine that he follows after
a day of drinking. But the following sentence reverts the
reader's attention to the search for the father: "What
could Father be doing while Mother is heading to her
death?" (112). 
By the end of the story, and after many subtle hints and
inconsistencies, we are left with the uncomfortable thought
that we have missed something. It is past the taverns'
closing time when the boy visits his aunt. Why has he not
found his father? Was he really looking for him? Why hasn't
he returned to his home, to his dying mother? It is not
until the end that we are given an obvious hint that
something in the boy's story is wrong. When he visits his
aunt, the boy says "Auntie. Please don't die before I grow
up. Grit your teeth and bear it." 
Only at this point are we given a hint that the boy has
survived the death of his family members, or perhaps even
his friends, that maybe his aunt is the only living
relative he has left. His parents are gone, his siblings
are gone, lost, or nonexistent. As far as we can tell, the
boy has no close ties with any relative because even his
aunt treats him more like a pest which must be disposed of
as soon as possible, and as the boy leaves her house she
bids him "Good-bye. And don't come back!" (114). Prior to
this incident, Ch'oe makes no obvious references to the
loss of the boy's parents. 
A few lines later, we find out that the boy is returning to
his orphanage. The search for the father was just a façade.
With this in mind, a closer reading of The Boozer reveals
that the boy's desperate search for his father is a
manifestation of the boy's psychological trauma caused by
the untimely deaths of his parents. The boy has a vivid
memory of his mother's death, of her bloody vomiting (105).
In all likelihood, this was followed by a desperate attempt
to resolve his psychological shock by means of looking for
his father, the only person who could offer him security
and comfort at that time, the only one who could make
everything "okay." We are not told the details of his
father's death, but he too is now deceased and the boy is
left alone in an orphanage. 
Throughout The Boozer, the boy keeps reliving the death of
his mother and father and seems to be in a state of
permanent denial. His drinking appears to be a regular
practice of dealing with his traumatic memories. The boy
enters taverns where "the latch was familiar" and where he
drinks shots "like a master at sleight-of-hand." The
drinkers in the taverns know the boy as well. One of them,
Whiskers, takes advantage of the boy's psychosis and amuses
himself by claiming he has seen his father that night and
even had a drink with him. Curiously enough, the boy does
not inquire as to where his father has gone, briefly
mentions his mother's violent illness again, and, just as
we would expect of any of the drunks in the story, he
focuses his attention on the bottle of "pellucid rotgut
The boy described in The Boozer is a realistic figure and
we must ask what type of society would bring him to such a
tragic state. It would be overinterpretation to force a
tight correlation between the story and the time it was
written (1966). There is no direct relation of characters
or events with specific events of the age of post-Korean
War development (1953-1970s), but the story does provide an
image of the harsh lives led by working class families
during this time. The connection between the lives of
typical working class Koreans and those of the characters
is not as direct as in Hwang Sõgyõng's A Dream of Good
Ch'oe Inho links real life and the life of the drinkers in
The Boozer concisely and subtly with images of the
depressed, drinking men, and their dark, dank, dusty
taverns. The boy's neighborhood is a depressing settlement
made up most likely of poor factory laborers. Their hard
work is inadequately rewarded, their lives bland and
routine, without hope of improvement. In the taverns the
atmosphere is filled with bitter cynicism, exemplified by
one drinker's announcement that "the world goes around to
get a drink." Although the taverns are not described in
detail, one image is enough to convey the stifling
atmosphere of hopelessness that pervades their interior: a
mere thirty-watt light bulb does a "fair job at
illumination." In one such tavern, the drinkers curse
"....their lives, their hopes for the future, their lousy
salaries...." (106) 
Drinking is the only way these people find to pass the time
between one workweek and the next, a way to escape the
reality of their misfortunes. Indeed, Eckert et al in Korea
Old and New: A History argue that one of the major forces
sustaining the growth of South Korean economy was cheap
labor at the cost of deplorable treatment of the
workers:....the country's low standard of living in the
early stages of the growth process; the workers' low pay
relative to business profits; poor working conditions; the
longest average work week in the world; the workers'
forbearance in the face of such hardships, especially in
the 1960s and early 1970s (Eckert et al. 402-403)
When workers, for example, began to demand better
conditions and more freedom in the late 1960s and 1970s,
the labor laws were structured into an elaborate system of
restraint on union activity, and the workers themselves
were ruthlessly put down by police and other security
forces (Eckert et al. 405). Unfortunately, it seems that
there is no escape from the resentments and misery of the
men's lives other than drink. In some ways, the boy is
already very similar to the drinking men. When one of the
drinkers, the one-armed man, seizes the boy and brings his
"knife-hand" to the boy's throat, what the boy feels is not
horror but "a light pang coming to the area of his throat
and.... the sound of grieving for an easy life." The boy
feels the despair in his life, just as the drinking men do,
just as his own father must have felt. Ironically, even
though the boy cannot accept his parents' deaths, he is
completely desensitized to the deaths of others. After the
one-armed man takes his own life, the boy feels no remorse,
but instead calls him a "Stupid asshole." He shows similar
insensitivity and unconcern for the sleeping drunk he robs
just moments later. He knows the man will probably freeze
to death before morning but makes no effort to bring the
man into shelter and is fully absorbed in his task of
pilfering through the man's pockets. Such impersonal
insensitivity to the loss of human life is an unfortunate
but necessary part of everyday living in the boy's
community. The only structural unit in his society that is
capable of providing protection and security is the family.
But even this is denied to the boy and it is instead
replaced by psychological trauma as he continues to relive
his parents' deaths.
 Ch'oe Inho's The Boozer provides us not only with an image
of working class poverty, but also explores the impossible
task of resolving the deaths of the parents of a young boy.
However, Ch'oe's greatest accomplishment here lies in his
disguise of the fact that the boy is without parents. This
required the use of subtle clues, barely perceptible upon
first reading, and these hints are obscured by a highly
credible façade that Choe is able to maintain until the
very end.
Works Cited
Ch'oe Inhon. "The Boozer." Land of Exile: Contemporary
Korean Fiction. Bruce Fulton, Ju-Chan Fulton, and Marshall
R. Pihl, eds. M.E. Sharpe, Incorporated: New York, 1993.
Eckert et al. Korea Old and New: A History. Ilchokak
Publishers: Seoul, 1990.

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