Books

Out of 'wanting,' brilliant stories

Be assured that Nam Le's brilliant debut short story collection, "The Boat," will quicken your pulse and awaken every nerve in your being. For avid readers who have hungered for stories that can transport them physically, intellectually and emotionally, stories so well-structured and narrated they appear to reinvent the form itself, the literary American Idol is Nam Le.

Born in Vietnam and raised in Australia, 29-year-old Le's dynamic prose and remarkable range of subjects and points of view defy explanation.

These seven stories are set all over the globe: Iowa City, New York City, Tehran, Hiroshima, Australia, Colombia and aboard a trawler in the South China Sea. One expects lapses of credibility with settings so diverse. But Nam Le's photographic eye and pitch-perfect ear capture each place so well the reader will have to remind himself that he's reading and is not actually standing on a bluff in Australia where "the town glinted like a single eye," or walking on Summit Street in Iowa with its "double-storied houses, their smooth lawns sloping down to the sidewalks like golf greens."

It's not a requirement to read this collection by beginning with the first story, "Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice"; however, the first story comes closest to revealing the creative processes behind Nam Le's art.

In the story, a Vietnam-born writer named Nam is on deadline at the Iowa Writers' Workshop when his father, with whom he has shared a questionably abusive relationship, comes to visit. They haven't seen each other in three years.

Nam first convinces himself that his writers' block can be attributed to not wanting to exploit "the Vietnam thing," subject matter he's shied away from except for one story about the Vietnamese boat people.

Nam interviews his father about the "re-education camps" and the massacre.

As a 14-year-old boy lying in a muddy ditch beneath his mother when the Americans began shooting, Nam's father says, "I felt my mother's body jumping on top of mine; it kept jumping for a long time then everywhere was the sound of helicopters. ..."

Nam says he wants to write his father's story so people "will remember." His father insists, "You want their pity ... only you'll remember. I'll remember. They will read and clap their hands and forget."

Both are right, of course. What begins as a clever story about how stories are written and what writers will co-opt in order to make their work salable and bankable, deepens into a magnificent tour de force about the bonds and betrayals between a father and son, betrayals that often take root and grow knottier over time. The final twist in this story, shocking and earned, will leave you, as it does Nam, "so full of wanting, I thought it would flood my heart."

The collection continues to astonish with each successive story, pitting love against honor, denouncing compassion in favor of pride, and always, always questioning the limits of and the necessity for sacrifice, most often those sacrifices parents make for their children.

In "Meeting Elise" a successful, middle-age New York City painter who may have colorectal cancer hopes to reunite with the daughter he has not seen since she was a baby.

"Even before she could speak," Henry says, "she'd look at me, unblinking, bringing me down to an accusable level ... I hadn't wanted her and she knew it." Now, on the day of Elsie's cello performance at Carnegie Hall, Henry hopes to rectify years of estrangement in a single luncheon.

Le structures his story and conducts Henry's voice so well, we don't see what the story is up to until it's upon us. Not, after all, the story of a man seeking forgiveness, but instead the portrait of a frightened, angry, grieving man battling his own mortality -- and losing.

Loss is at the heart of "Halflead Bay" in which Jamie, a teenager in a fishing village in Australia tries to keep ahead of his mother's deterioration from MS; his desire for Alison, the off-limits girlfriend of a frightening, violent thug; and his father's expectations. The story contains some of Le's most exquisite prose, recording everything from the observable gradations of light to death as "a thrown switch, a fizzling of the senses, the sound sucked out of things. Your eyes a dark cold green hurt."

In "Tehran Calling" a young woman confronts herself and her misconceptions about her best friend, Parvin. And in "Cartagena" you won't be able to dislodge the blistered, hardened voice of the teenage assassin, Juan Pablo Merendez, from your head, nor will you soon forget the voice of the orphan narrator at Hiroshima before the bomb is dropped.

Finally, the journey on the overcrowded trawler ferrying Vietnamese escapees across the South China Sea is unquestionably one of the most remarkable, complex stories since Conrad's "Heart of Darkness."

Le tells the story of two women: 16-year-old Mai whose parents have sacrificed to ensure her escape from Vietnam, and Quyen, a young mother traveling with her 6-year-old child, Truong, "who was like an old man crushed into the rude shape of a boy." Again, the question of sacrifice and the depths and shortcomings of parental love are rendered like the cloud streaks after the storm Le describes: "blue-bruised against a sky the color of skin."

In the first story, the alter-ego Nam makes reference to his boat people story, glibly referring to it as though it were a toss-off, easily achieved.

It is clear, however, after reading this final stunning work that Nam Le spent everything he had -- love, honor, pity, pride, compassion and sacrifice -- to write it.

There is so much to say about Nam Le's genius it would take a book and even that may not be enough. With "The Boat," Nam Le defeats time, hollowness and cliché in each story, earning him the right to reap sheaves, buckets, reservoirs of generous, unabashed praise.

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