The Boat

by Nam Le

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The Boat

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The most outstanding feature of the Vietnamese Australian writer Nam Le’s first book, The Boat, is the remarkable variety of the seven short stories in the collection. Only the first and the last story deal with Vietnam. The others cover a wide range of locales, taking the reader to Colombia, New York City, Australia, Japan, and Iran. They span six decades from the end of World War II to the early twenty-first century. Each story tells a fresh tale, and Le masterfully presents central characters who have to meet an existential challenge.

“Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” introduces Le’s readers to his convictions and self-understanding as a writer. Cleverly mixing the autobiographical and the fictitious, the central character is named Nam Le like the author himself. The character Le is given many of the author’s characteristics, but the author adds strong fictional deviations. By doing so, Le challenges the reader not to fall into the trap of reading his fiction as a mere exploration of his personal experience.

Like his author from 2004 to 2005, Le is a Vietnamese Australian ex-lawyer who has become a fellow at the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop that has nurtured many contemporary literary talents. As Le is facing a final deadline to write a story, he is visited by his estranged father from Australia. Now Le tries any trick to overcome his writer’s block, and he uses an old typewriter instead of a computer to stop himself from endlessly revising. While thinking, he remembers a conversation with a fellow aspiring writer. It is through this imaginary conversation that author Le offers a strong view of his beliefs as a writer.

A friend offers Le a surefire shortcut to solve his problem: “just write a story about Vietnam.” That fits with Le’s observation of the contemporary American literary market. As an instructor tells him, “ethnic literature’s hot” and “visiting literary agents” admonish young writers to write only from their own “background and life experience.” Against this, Le’s friend quotes the words of William Faulkner, which give the story its title. This list that starts with “Love and Honor” suggests that literature should be about what truly matters in human experience. As a parting shot, his friend tells Le that he admires him for his struggle against an easy way out: “You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing. But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphansand New York painters with hemorrhoids.”

The Boat features stories on all those topics, with the exception of the lesbian vampires, indicating Le’s fondness to mix fact with fiction.

As Le yields to the temptation to write an “ETHNIC STORY” to make his deadline, he chooses as its subject his father’s survival of the infamous 1968 My Lai massacre of American troops in Vietnam. In reality, author Le’s father grew up in a different location, in Rach Gia, south of My Lai, and has no connections to that atrocity.

In the story, Le is poetically punished for abandoning his quest for true literary art as his father burns the typewritten pages of that story in the gasoline drum of a homeless man they had befriended earlier. The reader will not find this story among author Le’s fiction.

True to Le’s belief in the necessity to expand the horizon of his fiction, “Cartagena,” which won the 2007 Pushcart Prize, takes the reader into the world of teenage Colombian assassins. Violent social and dire economic circumstances, as well as a vicious civil war and the international cocaine...

(This entire section contains 1840 words.)

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trade, have turned the children’s lives into premature hell. Juan Pablo Merendez, called “Ron” for his childhood feat of drinking Ron de Medellin tequila without vomiting, slithers into a criminal life. It began once he and his friend Hernando were kidnapped by a corrupt policeman and a pedophile Colombian businessman.

After Hernando killed both their captors with the policeman’s gun, Ron decided to throw in his lot with the assassination squads of underground figure El Padre, himself a victim of Colombia’s cruel war against radical Communist insurgents. Now Ron kills for money that allows him to buy a safe house in the barrio for his mother, who lost her husband to right-wing militiasLe is careful to show that murder is committed on both sides of the Colombian political divide.

Eventually ordered to kill Hernando, who works to get street kids out of gangs, Ron refuses and is called to meet El Padre. Characteristically for Le’s central characters, Ron is pushed to the limit of endurance by his author. Le stops Ron’s story just short of its likely conclusion, but he does not leave much doubt about the eventual dark outcome.

In “Meeting Elise,” fifty-something New York painter Henry Luff desperately tries to meet with his estranged daughter, Elise. She is a famous cellist about to be married to her British manager. Henry has not seen his daughter since her Russian mother took her away as a toddler after Henry started an affair with his young model, Olivia. Told from a convincing first-person point of view, Henry is a character whose body seems to give out when his hemorrhoids are diagnosed as likely indicators of colon cancer. His mental collapse in the face of Elise’s ultimate rejection is reminiscent of Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow’s character of Wilhelm Adler in his 1956 novel Seize the Day. “Meeting Elise” shows impressively how Le can create pathetic characters that evoke a reader’s pity for their demoralizing situation.

“Halflead Bay” presents a moving coming-of-age story in which Jamie, a good-natured high school kid in a backwater, run-down Australian seashore town, has to face Dory Townsend, a vicious bully, rapist, and murderer. Jamie’s winning football goal has pushed his school into the final and suddenly has given him a certain clout at school and the dubious attention of the popular girl Allison Fischer, Dory’s girlfriend.

As Jamie struggles with family problemshis mother is dying of multiple sclerosishe is haunted by the idea of incurring Dory’s wrath for accepting Allison’s obvious invitation. He remembers how Dory viciously beat up a previous rival and, with his sycophant buddy Lester, raped and killed a Chinese girl, “the young woman’s body . . . found in the swalewithin shouting distance of where Dory lived with his uncle.” The police let the teenagers go for lack of direct evidence and underlying institutional racism.

After Jamie sleeps with Allison, he is challenged to a fight by Dory. Moved by the appeal of Jamie’s father, who brings into his office his wheelchair-bound mother, and concerned about Jamie’s availability for the football final, the principal effectively cancels the fight. Yet Jamie feels cheated and challenges Dory at his shack. Allison is there and betrays Jamie by goading on Dory to beat up Jamie before his father comes up and leads him away. The story strikes a fine balance between Jamie’s need to prove himself and his realization that his father genuinely cares about him.

From its narrative structure, “Hiroshima” is a story about the irony of fate. Not being granted one’s dearest wish may actually save one’s life because of a cruel twist of circumstances. The story’s narrator, Mayako, is a third grader evacuated from Hiroshima at the end of World War II in the Pacific. She wishes nothing more than to be reunited with her parents and big sister, who continue to live in the city. On August 6, 1945, Mayako feels faint heat on her cheeks from the flash of the distant atom bomb, which signals the deaths of her family and her survival.

What makes Le’s “Hiroshima” particularly powerful is his authentic rendition of the mind-set of Mayako. She has totally internalized imperial Japanese propaganda of the period. By telling the story completely from her point of view, showing her belief in honor and sacrifice without the slightest trace of doubt, Le creates a masterful tale that moves his readers to great compassion for his young protagonist.

“Tehran Calling” features thirty-something lawyer Sarah Middleton, who, after breaking up with her lawyer colleague Paul, decides to visit her Iranian college friend Parvin during the Shiite’s Ashura festival in Tehran. The story closely follows Sarah as she enters the alien city for the first time.

Once Sarah meets Parvin at the home of her privileged parents, she encounters the cultural fissure between official religious doctrine and private transgressions. Parvin leads a party of reformists, and Sarah learns about the tragedies in her friend’s life, such as the death of her brother in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980’s. Determined to challenge the authorities with a play about a thirteen-year-old girl killed by religious radicals, Parvin disappears and her fiancé Mahmoud goes with Sarah to find her. When Sarah sleeps with Mahmoud after their close call with the militias, while Parvin is still unaccounted for, there is a sense of multiple betrayals that underlines quite a few of Le’s stories.

Only the final story of Le’s book returns to the topic of Vietnam. “The Boat” tells of the harrowing experience of sixteen-year-old Mai. Her family has placed Mai on a boat full of refugees trying to escape the hardships of Communist Vietnam in the late 1970’s. A storm wreaks havoc with the boat, and the refugees find themselves without engine power and rapidly dwindling resources. Mai befriends Quyen, mother of the six-year-old boy Truong. The boy shares the same name of one of the author’s brothers, yet another instance in which Le mixes the autobiographical and the fictional. Truong attracts Mai’s attention because he sings a forlorn Vietnamese folk song, reminding her of her mother.

As the ship’s captain, the saintly Anh Phuoc, tries to steer the boat toward a friendly coast with the help of an emergency sail, people start dying. Like a Bodhisattva who could enter Nirvana but chooses to stay in this world to guide others to Buddhist fulfillment, Phuoc has made the passage to freedom already, but he chooses to return to Vietnam to rescue others.

Indicative of the narrative doubling in “The Boat,” first Mai falls seriously ill but recovers. Then it is Truong’s turn, and the boy dies on the day that land is finally in sight. By contrast, the author’s real brother survived such an ordeal.

Le’s The Boat met with enthusiastic critical reception in the United States. Michiko Kakutani, the influential critic of The New York Times, praised his work for its portrayal of characters facing extreme life circumstances. A day after this favorable review, the paper published a rave interview of Le. With a sense for irony, he met the journalist at the same New York restaurant where Henry waits in vain to encounter his daughter Elise in “Meeting Elise.” Critics overwhelmingly agree that Le has succeeded in offering an extraordinary first collection of short stories.


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Booklist 104, no. 17 (May 1, 2008): 69.

Entertainment Weekly, May 16, 2008, p. 70.

Esquire 149, no. 6 (June, 2008): 44.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 7 (April 1, 2008): 325.

Library Journal 133, no. 8 (May 1, 2008): 62.

The New York Review of Books 55, no. 18 (November 20, 2008): 38-40.

The New York Times Book Review, June 8, 2008, p. 8.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 3 (March 31, 2008): 37.

The Times Literary Supplement, October 10, 2008, p. 21.

The Washington Post, July 16, 2008, p. C8.