By Nam Le. Knopf Canada, 272 pp, $25.95, hardcover
Nam Le’s debut collection of short stories opens on a wonderfully autobiographical note. “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” is narrated by a young writer named Nam, frustrated and behind deadline at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His problem? He wants to tell the story of his father’s childhood in rural Vietnam, but doesn’t want to be forever branded an “ethnic writer”. As one friend of Nam’s puts it: “I’m sick of ethnic lit.”¦It’s full of descriptions of exotic food”—a subtly barbed assessment of today’s literary marketplace.
From here, Le disappears as a character, but the author’s underlying fear of being pigeonholed remains palpable throughout The Boat. The stories switch settings—and genres—at every opportunity: from an aging New York painter’s failed attempts to reunite with his daughter, to a schoolgirl stuck at a religious retreat in moments before the atomic bomb is dropped, to teenage hit men in Colombia gathering illegal hand grenades and plotting their biggest mission yet.
All of which would make for a fatally broad range of material if Le weren’t such a versatile and gifted writer. He’s as comfortable describing the vast cardboard-box slums in the Colombia city of Cartagena as he is the crusty dishes in Nam’s sink. More importantly, all of his characters remain entirely distinct from one another, in both personality and dialect.
In “Halflead Bay”, the longest and fullest story, Le deftly captures the intense hive mentality of high-school life in an Australian fishing village. It’s a place where a typical girl’s dress is “stretched so tight it bit into her thigh”, and where one boy is torn between pursuing his lustful impulses and attending to his mother, who is suffering from an aggressive case of multiple sclerosis.
It’s not until the very last story, “The Boat”, that Le dares to mention Vietnam again. This tale of an ill-prepared smuggling operation on the South China Sea is not quite as well executed as the others, but the fact that the collection takes its name from this story is surely significant. Either his publisher completely missed the message of the first story, or it was Le’s own choice—perhaps after realizing he had no reason to fear being pigeonholed after all.