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The Boat (Rough-Cut) Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 13, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. From a Colombian slum to the streets of Tehran, seven characters in seven stories struggle with very particular Swords of Damocles in Pushcart Prize winner Le's accomplished debut. In Halflead Bay, an Australian mother begins an inevitable submission to multiple sclerosis as her teenage son prepares for the biggest soccer game of his life. The narrator of Meeting Elise, a successful but ailing artist in Manhattan, mourns his dead lover as he anticipates meeting his daughter for the first time since she was an infant. The opening Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice features a Vietnamese character named Nam who is struggling to complete his Iowa Writer's Workshop master's as his father comes for a tense visit, the first since an earlier estrangement shattered the family. The story's ironies—You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing, says a fellow student to Nam—are masterfully controlled by Le, and reverberate through the rest of this peripatetic collection. Taken together, the stories cover a vast geographic territory (Le was born in Vietnam and immigrated to Australia) and are filled with exquisitely painful and raw moments of revelation, captured in an economical style as deft as it is sure. (May)
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“Remarkable . . . The Boat catches people in moments of extremis, confronted by death or loss or terror (or all three) and forced to grapple at the most fundamental level with who they are and what they want or believe. Whether it’s the prospect of dying at sea or being shot by a drug kingpin or losing family members in a war, Nam Le’s people are individuals trapped in the crosshairs of fate, forced to choose whether they will react like deer caught in the headlights, or will find a way to confront or disarm the situation. The opening story of this volume, ‘Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,’ and its singular masterpiece, features a narrator who shares a name and certain biographical details with the author . . . The other tales in this book, however, circumnavigate the globe, demonstrating Mr. Le’s astonishing ability to channel the experiences of a multitude of characters, from a young child living in Hiroshima during World War II to a 14-year-old hit man in the barrios of Medellín to a high school jock in an Australian beach town. Mr. Le not only writes with an authority and poise rare even among longtime authors, but he also demonstrates an intuitive, gut-level ability to convey the psychological conflicts people experience when they find their own hopes and ambitions slamming up against familial expectations or the brute facts of history.
By far the most powerful, most fully realized story in this collection, ‘Love and Honor’ begins as a fairly conventional account of a young writer suffering from writer’s block and trying to cope with an unwanted visit from his father, who has flown in from Australia to see him. . . . As this story unfolds, it becomes a meditation not just on fathers and sons, but also on the burdens of history and the sense of guilt and responsibility that survivors often bequeath to their children. . . . [Le’s] sympathy for his characters and his ability to write with both lyricism and emotional urgency lend his portraits enormous visceral power. . . . In the two stories that bookend this collection, he conveys what it might be like to have the Vietnam War as an inescapable fact of daily life, infecting every relationship and warping the trajectory of one’s life. In ‘The Boat’ he does so directly with devastating results; in ‘Love and Honor’ he does so elliptically, creating a haunting marvel of a story that says as much about familial dreams and burdens as it does about the wages of history.”
–Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Not yet 30, [Nam Le] is already an extraordinarily accomplished and sophisticated writer. In [The Boat’s] opening story, he plays with the elusive boundaries between truth and fiction . . . [The Boat] offers strong evidence that the most effective way to convey the universal human qualities Faulkner admired in literature is, paradoxically, through the individual and the particular. . . . The range of characters is unusual, but what is truly remarkable is that the language and tone of each [story] is perfectly suited to the characters and setting . . . The stories are so different from one another it is hard to believe all seven are the work of a single author. What they all have in common is that each one portrays its characters in a crisis that reveals resources of courage and resilience even he or she was not aware of. All but one of the stories concern what is arguably the deepest, most complex and most poignant of human relationships: the bond between parent and child. . . . The most moving and unforgettable is ‘Halflead Bay’ . . . Rarely has one read such a sensitive and empathetic treatment of adolescent angst, all the more remarkable because the story’s main character is shy and inarticulate. . . . The story is especially memorable for its richly poetic Australian vernacular, a language Nam Le clearly feels in his bones. The future looks bright for Nam Le. As Faulkner observed, voices like his not only record the human condition but also help us endure and prevail.”
–Michael McGaha, San Francisco Chronicle
“Astounding . . . A refreshingly diverse and panoramic debut. [The Boat’s] seven stories are set in Iowa City, the slums of Colombia, Manhattan, coastal Australia, Hiroshima, Iran and the South China Sea, with characters as varied as a Japanese third-grader, an aging painter with hemorrhoids and an American woman visiting Iran for the first time. . . . ‘Cartagena,’ a gripping tale of adolescent friendship, crime and loyalty [would] in less capable hands . . . quickly devolve into cartoonish violence and two-dimensional stereotype, but Le’s masterful treatment results in a rich unveiling that renders the story more complex at every turn. The atmosphere is utterly authentic, the language spare and idiomatic. . . . What is most remarkable about [‘Meeting Elise’] is the way in which Le deftly juggles dialogue, memory and the physical sense of an aging man’s ailing body to create a continuous, seamless consciousness, wholly convincing throughout. The stories tend to establish a future event and conclude just before that event occurs. . . . This lends them a narrative propulsion while also placing the characters in a space in which they interact, collide, struggle to connect, fail or succeed. Le's characters tend to be people in transit, people who, for one reason or another, have come unmoored and find themselves among other unmoored people, all of them trying to find their way to safety and stability. He resists the urge to explain them away and instead inhabits them with the sort of visceral empathy that cannot be taught. . . . The finest story in the collection is ‘Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,’ . . . a deeply moving story about a son and father attempting to come to terms with themselves, with each other and with the past. . . . In its complexity, in its range, in its depiction of a struggle to make sense of experience, [it] achieves the realm of Literature.”
–Antoine Wilson, Los Angeles Times Book Review
“A collection that takes the reader across the globe. From Iowa to Colombia to Australia and Iran, the characters in Le’s stories each shape the world around them. In each story, the protagonists create a new atmosphere. . . . ‘Love and Honor and Pity . . .’ is a thought-provoking introduction to the world of the author, and ‘Halflead Bay,’ a story that takes place in Le’s native Australia, is a very moving, brief coming-of-age tale. . . . While Le is a writer who seems to be interested in the issues of the world, he is also a writer interested in the young. . . . Le does not downplay the lives of his children as fiction often does when portraying younger characters but presents them with a seriousness and intelligence that is refreshing. . . . The Boat is an impressive debut from a writer with a lot more to give. A writer to be remembered.”
–Marion Frisby, The Denver Post
“Powerful . . . Lyrical . . . Devastating . . . A harsh and masterful effort, each tale a clean shot through the heart, the aim true. In seven stories covering six continents and an ocean, Le delivers a powerful and assured vision that offers a clear look at his impressive talents. The range is ambitious. Le adopts the persona of a young drug assassin in Cartagena, an aging New York painter, an American woman visiting a radical friend in Tehran. Steered by a less-certain voice, readers might suffer whiplash. But Le never loses his way. In the searing first story, ‘Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,’ he nails with bitter precision the tension between a Vietnam-born former lawyer trying to meet a deadline at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and his father . . . Le sketches the life of the immigrant writer son with spare, sure strokes. . . . His kaleidoscopic world view is on display throughout the stories, which seamlessly blend cultural traditions, accents and landscapes that run from lush to barren. The collection works in part because Le’s confidence as a storyteller is the solid base on which the structure rests. Le doesn’t turn away from difficult moments; he stares right at them. There’s a purpose to the tough scenes that builds the reader’s trust. Le is the sort of writer who taps directly into the vein of desperation and offers no shelter. He’s not for the faint of heart, but the reward for soldiering on in the toughness of his world is the welcome recognition of a voice clear and brave.”
–Amy Driscoll, The Miami Herald
“Captivating . . . An uncannily mature debut [that] distills time, experience . . . There’s a streak of the naturalist in Nam Le that looks back to such writers as Emile Zola, Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser. Like them, he sees individual suffering as intimately tied to large social forces. . . . Though many of the stories have a socially charged dimension, they aren’t concerned in any specific way with issues or social problems, except insofar as they affect the lives of his characters. Le concentrates how they experience our time and the places they inhabit. . . . [‘Love and Honor . . .’] gives multifaceted life to the story of a father, deeply enmeshed in his ethnic history, and a son, who is ambivalent about his relationship to it. . . . The way ‘Love and Honor’ ends, conveyed in beautifully restrained poetic language, is heartrending. Indeed, all of these stories break your heart in different ways, each as memorably as the others. . . . ‘The Boat,’ which concludes the book, is the toughest to read. Not because it isn’t wonderfully written. Rather, because it focuses so vividly on the physical and psychological trials of a small group of Vietnamese refugees afloat...
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In the first story Le himself is the main character. He is in the US, Iowa writer’s workshop, when his father visits from Australia. Le struggles to find a way of relating to his father after long absences and is unsure how he will appreciate his work as an author. All the words of the title Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Passion and Sacrifice are explored in this story.
In the second story Cartagena the Hero Ron is trying to extract himself from a dangerous situation in a dangerous city Medellin in Columbia and go to Cartagena. I haven’t been to Medellin and I understand Le hasn’t either. It reads like hell on earth (as does Tehran in another story). I do however understand and appreciate the human side of Ron. His concern for his mother and his mixed relationship with his girl friend are all things that happen across countries and cultures. Other stories relate to relationships between father and daughter, female friends, mother and son and finally two women and one child in a desperate boat journey out of communist Vietnam.
The final story “The Boat” is the most graphic and disturbing. Clearly the boat journey from Vietnam is something Le knows a lot about. It raises questions about the morality of those of us in Australia and other western countries that are now turning their backs on people in such dire situations in need of help.
I normally don’t appreciate short stories, as the limited space does not allow a lot of character development. The Boat collection however is one of the best I have read and I found myself getting very involved with each story.
I will be eagerly waiting for all of Nam Le's future work. This is a brilliant debut, and there's nowhere to go from here but up.
Everything. The problem is, as Le says, ethnic literature is "a license to bore. The characters are always flat, generic." Readers are either numb to it because of stereotypes or mental blockage, or have no frame of reference. And as Le's first story shows, the writer can't help but be exploitative in the process. However it is still possible to convey the feelings of the experience through a proxy, and so all of these stories immerse the reader with emotions in preparation for the last story about Vietnamese boat people.
It's been said there is no loneliness more acute than that experienced around other people, in particular family. The New York artist who waits alone in the restaurant for the daughter who never comes; the high school football star who fights his personal battles, but even with his father taking the punches, still faces it alone; the Colombian assassin who faces his destiny without his friends help; in each of the stories the main character is isolated and alienated and faces a great trauma. The experience of reading this book reminded me of when I was child, lost in the crowd, my parents seemingly gone forever and the world a difficult and cold place.
By the last story, "The Boat", the readers sensibilities have been so finely shaped to this sense of alienation, fear and dread that Nam Le is able to convey the Vietnamese boat people "ethnic experience" in a fresh and immediate way. The details and facts are conveyed through the words on the page, but the feeling and sense of experience comes from within. Using this as an interpretive framework, it no longer seems like a collection of short stories but a work greater than its elements, a masterful use of the short story format to touch on universal human experience.
Most recent customer reviews
Nam Le's use of language is calm, paced, exact.Read more