A teenager whose mother is dying of cancer. A South American assassin who has betrayed his employer. An elderly painter with colon cancer who wants to hear his daughter play the cello before he dies. A young girl traveling as a refugee from Viet Nam to Australia, her parents gone or dead. Nam Le's debut The Boat is comprised of eight stories that circulate around the heart of its characters’ lives, not to understand who they are but to show them as they live. Le writes with insight and clarity, forgoing flash to focus on the importance of character, depth, and understanding. The Boat is an uneven debut, but where it succeeds it does so with a force that demands attention.
A few of the stories are nothing short of miracles in miniature. The opening three – “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” “Cartagena” and “Meeting Elise” - are magnificent, perfectly cadenced and told with a remarkable ear for the protagonists. What is even more astounding is that the stories themselves are so different, yet Le manages to write each with sensitivity and skill. “Cartagena” is the story of a youthful assassin who has had to choose between loyalty to a friend and the obedience required of his master. Juan Pablo is a troubled character trapped within the turmoil of Colombia. He has a small gang, a shadowy employer, and a mother who expects, as mothers do, better from her son. “Cartagena” is a story that has the matter-of-fact approach to violence and corruption so common to South American authors – what is astonishing is that Le was born in Vietnam, migrated to Australia, and lives in the United States. Along with the others stories in The Boat – including those that do not work so well – Le shows his mastery of place and voice in “Cartagena”. Juan Pablo is a viscerally believable character, his anxiety about his 'appointment' with the horrible vicious El Padre palpable on every page.
“Meeting Elise” shifts tone to a sophisticated, somewhat bitter painter who is in the throes of cancer and who may, for the first time since she was born, see his daughter. “Cartagena” is a story composed of molten, night-time infused sentences that draw broad pictures of South American violence, but “Meeting Elise” is an unhurried tale, its protagonist somewhat outraged, certainly educated, and aesthetically agreeable in his tastes. Comparing the two, it would be difficult to place them as written by the same author; that they are is a testament to Le's skill.
“Love and Honor...” has as its protagonist Nam Le himself. The story shows him as a procrastinating, scotch-drinking former lawyer turned writer. His father has flown in from Australia, providing the stumped Le with an excellent topic for an upcoming deadline. What begins as a ho-hum story of a writer writing about being a writer quickly turns into an examination of the moral and emotional implications involved in plumbing your own past, or that of your family's, for the purposes of fiction. Can all secrets be revealed just because you are a writer? How much privacy can an author's family expect? Le shows both the advantages and the downsides to such an approach in a story that is tender without being mawkish.
Sadly, the remaining five stories are not as good. They are all written with the same skill and flair for place and character, but the plots of these stories weigh them down. Le is a writer unbeholden to an ideology – for how could he be, with characters as different as these? - which means that his stories require a certain movement of plot to make them stand out. The first three stories present their case early and build upon it in a way that seems both honest and exciting – we are interested in the outcome of these character's situations. Their moral problems become ours as we read them. But stories such as “Halflead Bay,” which has at its core the problem of a teenager going through his mother's early death, suffers both from its premise and its length. At roughly seventy pages, this story could have easily been halved without losing any of its essence. “Tehran Calling” is another story that is too long, but it also suffers from a lack of focus brought about by the protagonist’s ignorance both of Iran and herself. She, and Le, potter meaninglessly through a series of events that can only be called trivial, and nothing new is presented about either the Middle East or the American view of it.
So what to make of such a chameleon? Three of the stories are very good, and very different. A few are simply sturdy tales, and two are outright bad. Le's strength happens also to be his weakness, which is itself a problem. He has shown himself capable of writing anyone anywhere, but as often as this technique succeeds it fails, which suggests there might be a problem with such a wide landscape. Nam Le is very young, and there is certainly time and opportunity for him to hone his skills. The characters within his stories are airy pieces of material which require a pole from which to unfurl, but too often he provides them nothing at all, leaving scraps of material on the ground in sad little lumps.
There is no question that Le is talented. When his skills align, he is capable of knocking a story straight out of the ballpark. But he remains, at the moment, undisciplined. It is unfortunate that this collection has received such high accolades from prominent newspapers and magazines, because there remains a chance that he will succumb to hubris and stagnate as a writer. However, I think this unlikely. Le's stories, when they work, are of such magnificence that it would be churlish to be anything but enthusiastic about this debut. There are caveats to all works of fiction, with perfection a state that will remain unachievable. The Boat is a very readable work, with the mistakes holding enough merit to warrant a close read; of the triumphs, this is even more true. Le is an author to be watched, and The Boat is a book to be celebrated. Flawed authors appear in print for the first time every week, but it is not often that their merits are polished so bright.