Questions of loyalty froth at the edges of Nam Le's muscular and impressive debut collection, The Boat.
In the title story, a young woman adrift on the South China Sea makes a horrifying decision about a sick child. Tehran Calling is the story of a young professional who travels to Iran and discovers her best friend has become a revolutionary firebrand. The hero of Halflead Bay snags the girl of his dreams, but winds up in the middle of a punchup that has more to do with his dying mother's honor than his own pride.
Not yet 30, Le effortlessly gives each of the seven tales in The Boat a different register, structure, vocabulary and tone. Halflead Bay, which unfolds in Australia, one of the places Le grew up, is a windswept, craggy love story — a modern Wuthering Heights. Le writes beautifully of the weather as a violent, sensual power, which signals some things cannot be changed or resisted: "The baked smells of the earth steamed open," he writes of a storm. "Potted music of water running through pipes, slapping against the earth; puddles strafed by raindrops."
The most impressive story in the bunch is Cartagena, which bounces through the teeming slums of a Colombian city and brings to life Juan Pablo Merendez, a teenage assassin who has been roped into the drug business when an act of self-protection (and vengeance) puts him in desperate need of protection.
Le gives Juan Pablo a stunningly vivid voice. The teenager speaks as if through a tunnel, the parameters of his attention narrowed to job and family, payment and loyalty. In the story's agonizing twist, Juan Pablo's employer ratchets up the cost of protection to an unthinkable price.
Le must have conducted some research to enter these disparate worlds, but his stories never creak under the weight of reportage. Even Hiroshima, a brief, heartbreaking tale about a young girl's routine in the hours before the bomb drops, has a riveting magnetism, somehow truer than the awful truth of that day.
In this story, as in others, Le never tries to throw his voice, or mimic the way a person like his narrator would speak. He creates a literary equivalent that is just articulate and unusual enough to keep us reading.
Le pulls this feat off again, to tragicomic effect, in Meeting Elise, in which a dying painter meets his 18-year-old cellist daughter for the first time. "Here's what I'll do," the man says to himself in the mirror, cranking himself up. Then he sees himself as if from the outside. "My face stark white, a shock of bone and skin and hair. My teeth yellow, carious." Not since Ethan Canin's The Emperor of Air has a young writer imagined himself into an old man's head so effectively.
We are all encased in such flesh, bound for deterioration, this book reminds. Somehow this dilemma has become more complicated for nonwhite writers to explore, as they're expected mostly to tell of where they came from.
In the opening story, Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice, a young writer named Nam Le, studying, as the author did, at the University of Iowa, tries to write the story of his father's survival of the My Lai massacre. Le, the character, wants to resist becoming yet another slice of ethnic literature.
In the end, Le has skirted this issue with amazing deftness, that first story a signal that, yes, he has thought about what he is supposed to write, and chosen a different path. Reading The Boat, however, it's clear this first story isn't the work that accomplishes this cultural sidestep; it's the six stories that follow. And they do it as all great stories can.
Their author, by sleight of hand and skill, forgets all that he should be and puts his searching, observant voice wherever he likes. It's a wonder to watch.
John Freeman is writing a book on the tyranny of e-mail.