The unusually various characters in Nam Le’s excellent debut collection, The Boat, live between worlds. In “Cartagena,” for example, a teenage contract killer in Colombia moves from squalid shantytowns to his master’s opulent mansion; in “Hiroshima,”a young girl shifts unambiguously toward death in the days and hours before the atomic bomb is dropped; and in the title story, a Vietnamese refugee overtaken by a storm on the South China Sea feels as if she is “soaring through the air, the sky around [her] dark and inky and shifting.” As these brief descriptions indicate, the book’s seven stories are also diverse in setting and mode. Consequently, the reader, invited to travel from, say, a tale of cultural and generational estrangement in Iowa City to a brooding coming-of-age story in an Australian coastal town, becomes a participant in Le’s transglobal examination of lives being lived in mental and physical border zones.
Le leaps from world to world with the help of his unusually supple prose. It can shift over the course of a page from intense, detailed understatement (“He told me about the tiger cage cells and connex boxes, the different names for different forms of torture”) to the workmanlike (“I watched him from the bedroom doorway. I was drunk”) to the searingly eloquent (“A past larger than complaint, more perilous than memory”). The textures of prose found among the stories are equally distinct. In “Tehran Calling,” a taut thriller set in the Iranian capital: “The din on the street was astonishing. Noise collected and chafed, it seemed, in the folds of fabric next to her ears. The sky was white, overcast, and beneath it wind gusted, fitfully, as if trapped.” While in the languorous, chilling “Hiroshima”: “The water is cool and the leaves are green. The stones by the water are covered in moss. There are more than fifty types of moss in Father’s garden. The shadows are large and cool.”
The anomaly in this otherwise stellar gathering is the third story, “Meeting Eloise,” which too predictably triangulates love, death, and futile, New Yorker–esque longing. Still, even this lesser offering highlights Le’s ability to capture voice and situation in a few fierce, deft strokes. “She acts like she sees this every day,” Le observes, “a sweat-drenched man, naked except for his white wing tip formal shirt, blood leaking from his ass, lying in a fetal position, shakily smoking a cigarette.”
In The Boat’s opening story, “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” Le’s fictional alter ego—a former lawyer of Vietnamese descent who is attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—wrestles with the unappealing stereotypes surrounding “ethnic lit.” He comes to terms both with his distrust of such literature and with his desire to write from experience by drafting a story, much like the one we are reading, that simultaneously enacts, dismantles, and expands on the genre. Much to its credit, The Boat manages to breathe similarly fresh air into the overly familiar idea of the short-story collection. The result is bracing.