Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta” concerns a woman whose inner emptiness makes her vulnerable to a crude and dangerous man who taps into her deepest fantasies. She is a bored, upper-middle-class Beverly Hills woman who, at the age of thirty-eight, has fallen prey to the conventional twentieth century modes of self-destruction—divorce, alcoholism, and drugs—and is trying to patch things back together through Alcoholics Anonymous and psychotherapy. She is, however, a woman of intelligence and rich imagination; she teaches creative writing and is a writer herself. It is precisely this inner life that makes her vulnerable.

Lenny, for all of his vulgarity and physical unattractiveness, comes from another side of life about which the woman has only fantasized. He is the rebel, the outlaw, who offers her a glimpse of the forbidden, the dangerous, and the deadly. He knows exotic places such as Vietnam, Colombia, and Thailand; has experienced war and adventure; has been in prison and smuggled drugs; and has access to luxurious homes, cars, and diamonds. He even wears black leather jackets and rides a motorcycle, conjuring up images of an aging James Dean, Marlon Brando, or Elvis Presley. When Lenny is with her, the narrator envisions blue skies with sunsets of absinthe yellow and burnt orange, warlords and concubines, and villages on the China Sea. He is an exotic passport into a world about which she has only dreamed—a Mekong Delta of possibilities that fill the emptiness of her life.

Lenny proves to be no better than the alcohol that once removed her from the painful reality of her life, however, and after she has a farewell drink with him, there is every indication that she will return once again to the bottle for her fantasies. The color blue, used throughout the story, has become an infected blue at the end, a kind of contagion that fills up the protagonist. Her dreams of a richer, fuller life depart with Lenny, and the emptiness within her is still there. He has become just a tall tale to tell her friends, like his own tall tales of the Mekong Delta, and although she may have gotten a glimpse of the other side, she knows she will never reach it. The China blue sky of possibility will always be inside her, never letting her forget.