The Gangster We Are All Looking For is kind of a shame. The story of a family of Vietnamese refugees who attempt to make a new life in California is novel, but no doubt has a personal connection for author lÍ thi diem thķy, who left Vietnam by boat with her father in 1978, settling in Southern California. Yet there is something oddly detached about it.
In the first part of the novel, the narrator Ė whose name is never given -- and her father come to California with four ďuncles", who arenít actually uncles. They are meant to take refuge with a retired Navy man and his wife, but the Navy man dies, so the coupleís son takes them in. They are waiting for the girlís mother to return from Vietnam.
The girl, disoriented at the intensity of the events occurring in her life, becomes obsessed with a butterfly paperweight in their hostís home (one of those knick-knacks with a butterfly suspended as if in mid-air). She throws the paperweight wishing to ďfreeĒ the butterfly, and breaks a cabinet full of glass miniatures. The girl, father and uncles are out on the street.
This is a good beginning for a novel. I wanted to know what becomes of the family Ė where they stay, how the mother eventually rejoins them, etc. But then the story starts skipping around. Suddenly, the mother is back with them. Thereís tension between the mother and the father, who is slowly descending into a hopeless rage. Thereís a story about the childís drowned brother. We learn that the father has a mysterious, violent past. Lots of things happen, but itís told out of order. Itís possible for stories told out of order to be effective, but Gangster shifts around so much that itís difficult to know where you are.
We donít even get more than a taste of what became of the family after the Navy manís son tossed them out. Itís hard to stay interested in the novel because the author doesnít really allow the characters to develop in a way that endears them to us. The parents seem vague and distant Ė and perhaps they should, as they are seen through the eyes of a child who loves but doesnít always understand them.
But the narrator herself isnít that engaging, so thereís no one for the reader to relate to. Itís too bad, because lÍ thi diem thķy writes poetic, lovely prose, and seems to be telling a story that is important to her, but it all lies kind of flat. This makes the story difficult to connect with, and difficult to follow. By the end, many profound, devastating things had happened to this family, but I was still wondering what happened after that little girl tried to free the butterfly.