At THE risk of being accused of judging a book by its cover, I would like to begin this review of Nam Le’s astounding collection, “The Boat,” with a simple observation. The word “stories” does not appear on the cover. Pulling the book off the shelf, you could reasonably assume you were holding a novel in your hand. The omission reflects publishing’s current wooziness toward short-story collections. The common wisdom is that they don’t sell; the word “stories” is to be avoided, and the more linked the collection, the better.
In this context, “The Boat” is a refreshingly diverse and panoramic debut. Its seven stories are set in Iowa City, the slums of Colombia, Manhattan, coastal Australia, Hiroshima, Iran and the South China Sea, with characters as varied as a Japanese third-grader, an aging painter with hemorrhoids and an American woman visiting Iran for the first time.
In “Cartagena,” a gripping tale of adolescent friendship, crime and loyalty, Juan Pablo, a 14-year-old assassin from Medellin, has been ordered to kill one of his closest friends. After he fails to eliminate his target, he is summoned by his “agent,” known as El Padre, a meeting that will most likely end in his own death. In less capable hands, this material would quickly devolve into cartoonish violence and two-dimensional stereotype, but Le’s masterful treatment results in a rich unveiling that renders the story more complex at every turn. The atmosphere is utterly authentic, the language spare and idiomatic: “Street kids scavenge for food by the roadside, some of them inhaling the pale yellow sacol from supermarket bags -- their eyes half-open and animal and unblinking.” Assuming that Le has never himself been employed by the Colombian drug cartels, the story must have required a considerable amount of research -- yet the narrative never feels weighed down. Reading these stories, you’re left feeling that Le has been all over the planet and has poked at everything with a sharp stick.
In “Meeting Elise,” Henry Luff, an aging, “well- regarded neo-figurative painter,” prepares to meet his adult daughter for the first time since she was an infant -- she’s giving a cello recital at Carnegie Hall. Luff’s narration ranges from the comic to the pa- thetic, and the world is vividly drawn, but what is most remarkable about the story is the way in which Le deftly juggles dialogue, memory and the physical sense of an aging man’s ailing body to create a continuous, seamless consciousness, wholly convincing throughout.
As with “Meeting Elise,” the stories tend to establish a future event and conclude just before that event occurs. In “Halflead Bay,” it is a big Australian football game; in “Hiroshima,” it is the dropping of the atomic bomb; in “Tehran Calling,” it is the performance of a political play. This lends them narrative propulsion -- something is coming! -- while also placing the characters in a sort of suspended animation, a space in which they interact, collide, struggle to connect, fail or succeed. Le’s characters tend to be people in transit, people who, for one reason or another, have come unmoored and find themselves among other unmoored people, all of them trying to find their way to safety and stability. He resists the urge to explain them away and instead inhabits them with the sort of visceral empathy that cannot be taught.
In the title story, the transit is also literal. A refugee named Mai forges a wary alliance with a woman and her son on a refugee boat in the South China Sea. Le keeps us keenly aware of the gulf between propinquity and genuine human connection. “She was crammed in by a boatload of human bodies, thinking of her father and becoming overwhelmed, slowly, with loneliness. . . . She stayed in that human cocoon, heaving and rolling, concentrating, until it was over.”
The finest story in the collection is “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” which is narrated by a 25-year-old lawyer-turned-writer named Nam who is attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. (Le worked as a lawyer before attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.) At one point, a fellow writing student lauds Nam for choosing not to exploit his ethnic background in his work: “You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing. But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans -- and New York painters with hemorrhoids.”
Lesbian vampires aside, that describes three of this collection’s stories -- clearly, there’s some gamesmanship afoot. Though Nam is obviously invented, the parallels invite us to treat the entire collection as not just a book by Nam Le, but also as the fictional product of a fictional young Vietnamese writer, also named Nam. It’s a clever, if diaphanous, frame. A teacher in the story urges Nam to write an “ethnic story,” stating that “ethnic literature’s hot. And important too.” The piece revolves around Nam’s struggle to finish this “ethnic story” while his laconic, somewhat estranged father is visiting. He writes the story of his father’s surviving the My Lai massacre. Though we never get to see the draft, the details are conveyed. The story we’re reading both contains and transforms the “ethnic story” it refers to. What eventually emerges is a deeply moving story about a son and father attempting to come to terms with themselves, with each other and with the past.
Though the other six stories in this collection are fine exemplars of literary fiction, “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” in its complexity, in its range, in its depiction of a struggle to make sense of experience, achieves the realm of Literature. *