Zou Lei and Brad Skinner have found their way to New York City independently. She is a Uyghur woman (a minority group in northern China), an unauthorized immigrant who is living at the fringes of society. He is a recently demobilized serviceman, who though seriously injured and suffering from PTSD, learns he has not been awarded disability. The two meet on the street and begin a relationship, which at first gives them hope but the unremitting challenges they face soon overwhelm Skinner particularly, while Zou Lei struggles on, trying to draw him out of his depression while eking out a living working at Chinese noodle carts and restaurants.
Then Jimmy, the felonious son of Skinner's landlady, enters the picture. He enter Skinner's room when Skinner is out, stealing small objects and displacing items around the room; he watches Skinner and Zou Lei while they are in bed together; he threatens Zou Lei when she comes to the door looking for her boyfriend. The mix is volatile, and Lish builds a sense of foreboding that is not misplaced.
Preparation for the Next Life got a rave review in The New York Times, which praised Atticus Lish for his superb job portraying "life at the margins" and for its "encrusted detail." The praise is well-earned, but I don't know that I would recommend the book to very many people. It is so unrelentingly dark (and I can tolerate a pretty high level of darkness) and the male characters so clearly destined for violent confrontation that I started to dread returning to the book. Zou Lei is a compelling character and I enjoyed the parts of the book abouther, but Skinner and Jimmy were so sociopathic that they were difficult to read about.