Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Short Story Month: Nam Le's The Boat

Since May is Short Story Month, we are posting some excerpts of book reviews of short story collections that originally appeared in print in The Common Review. Today's review is of Nam Le's collection, The Boat, published by Knopf (May 2008). This review originally appeared in The Common Review 7:2, Fall 2008.

Review by Penelope Mesic

In "Meeting Elise," the third of seven stories in the masterful debut collection The Boat by Nam Le, a successful New York painter named Henry Luff struggles with the painful onset of cancer, the death of his young muse/mistress/model Olivia, and the nervous anticipation of meeting his daughter, Elise, a virtuoso cellist raised since infancy in Russia by Luff's embittered ex-wife. Funny, cynical, and largely friendless, Henry describes the genuinely kind owner of the gallery who represents him as having "eyes so earnest he looks like a cross between a TV evangelist and a cow." Yet Henry adds, "He only wants what's best for me, he says, and in that precise moment I realize it's true. He's the only one." In other words, Nam catches Henry at his moment of greatest need, when the odds are overwhelmingly against him and when the character himself is keenly aware that his resources--mental, emotional, practical--are completely unequal to his circumstances.

This is, in fact, the archetypal pattern of the stories in this collection, in which Le's characters are as powerless as figures in the philosophy of Epictetus but nowhere near as stoical. "Halflead Bay," set in an Australian fishing village, catches the adolescent Jamie when he has let himself be seen kissing the girlfriend of the town bully, who is known for having beaten an Asian immigrant woman to death. In "Cartagena," the Columbian narrator is a novice hit man who, having assassinated 14 people in the past four months, is now ordered to kill a childhood friend.

If they are lucky enough to survive or prosper, Le's characters do so with the knowledge that it is not by their own efforts but by chance. This sounds dispiriting, but the telling of it isn't. The exhilarating accuracy of Le's observations amounts to a steady pulse of vitality. To notice so keenly amounts to pleasure in life and justifies his audacious global reach, with stories set in North and South America, Asia, Australia, and the Middle East.

The characters, too are uneasily aware of crisscrossing a world they understand poorly. In "Tehran Calling," Sarah, a 35-year-old attorney from Portland, visits her old friend Parvin in Iran. Arriving during the holy week of Ashura, she instantly realizes that her ignorance, particularly of what social behaviors might be construed as wanton or unchaste, carries a grave risk. In the United States, her friend Parvin was a joker, a free spirit who dyed her hair purple; in Iran her unconventionality has deepened to political dissent and advocacy of women's rights. Sarah fears that Parvin regards her lack of commitment as a shortcoming, her life as easy and purposeless. But how could Sarah show mastery in a place she scarcely understands?

There have been few short story writers since Nabokov with such an economical aptitude for zeroing in on what is memorable and definitive. In "Halflead Bay," when an artist with multiple sclerosis falls, pulling down her easel, they lie "as though she'd ben dancing with it and they'd tripped over together." In "The Boat," Mai, about to leave Vietnam, searches for one last glimpse of her mother's face, "but the street, like a wound, had closed over the space where it had been."

No one can be this good, this young, without some display of bravado. There is a cheeky self-awareness in the opening story, "Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice." (The title lists things Faulkner regarded as worth writing about, germane because the young narrator of Vietnamese birth--whom we are given every reason to regard as the author himself--attends the Iowa Writer's Workshop.) Slyly, the narrator mentions a fellow writing student's comment: "That's why I don't mind your work, Nam. . .Because you could just write about Vietnamese boat people all the time. . .but instead, you choose to write about. . .Colombian assassins. . .and New York painters." The joke, of course, is that the last story in Le's collection is indeed about Vietnamese boat people, yet by the time we arrive at it, it is far from predictable or standard fare.

As "Love and Honor" begins the narrator's father arrives after 33 hours of air travel and immediately sets to work washing his son's dirty dishes, a gesture annoyingly reproachful or shamingly affectionate--or both. The son responds by hiding his booze and the photograph of his girlfriend. But under this bright mosaic of surface details--the conventions of a child trying to escape a controlling parent--are feelings so strong and so binding that it is useless even to say whether they amount to love or hate, only that they relate to a tragedy in the father's past that has mortgaged the son's future.

A similar sense that one's life belongs to another informs "The Boat." Sixteen-year-old Mai, adrift for 13 days in a broken-down trawler with 200 other Vietnamese refugees, forms a bond with a sickly and impassive little boy. Dozens die of thirst and illness. Mai sees "how necessary it was to stay on the surface of things. Because beneath the surface was either dread or delirium."

Le inhabits this nightmarish world as straightforwardly as he does the New York of cello concerts. After all, the artist Henry Luff, too, is almost certainly a goner, and in a way, equally adrift. The stories in The Boat sometimes end with separation or death, yet Le leaves us with the conviction that this is what writing is for: to record the connections between people that even death cannot undo.

Penelope Mesic has written criticism and commentary for periodicals as diverse as Poetry and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. She lives on an island with gratifyingly poor television reception.


  1. I love these stories that feature art-oriented characters: they allow me to catch a glimpse of that eerie world I never had much chance to explore and thus provide that wonderful break from my, shall we say, textbook reality where I am rewarded more for not committing mistakes than I am with exploring new ideas.

  2. Great story, I hope I'd be able to visit that place sometime.