The Power of Short Stories

In addition to being intended for reading at a single sitting, short stories offer the potential for transportation to other cultures, locales, and times. They offer the added opportunity of climbing into the skin and sensitivity of a remarkable array of persons one might not otherwise meet in such personal, intimate surroundings.

These generalities apply with great specificity to the work of Nam Le, a young writer born in Viet Nam, raised in Australia, and educated in the United States. Knopf published “The Boat,” his first collection, this month. These seven stories, all set in different locales, not only invite reading each at a single sitting, they demand it. Using the best of dramatic inducements – the gun of curiosity leveled at your temple – Nam Le presents an array of characters involved in situations that seem at first blush to be simple, straightforward, tinged only with the mildest hint of the untoward. But in each of the seven stories, the untoward lurches toward the unthinkable outcome that confirms our early-on suspicions that these individuals are plausible to the point of reminding us of ourselves.

By the merest chance, I happened on Nam Le as he was being interviewed on Public Radio, his speaking voice tinted with the effects of his time spent in Australia, reminding me immediately of the inherent humor, good nature, and linguistic eye for detail of Christopher Buckley. Asked to read from the first story in the collection, “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” he chose one of my favorite moments in the story, a confrontation between a son studying at the famed University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

“’Have you heard from your mother?’ He stood upright before the railing, his head strangely small above the puffy down jacket I had lent him.

“’Every now and then.’

“He lapsed into formal Vietnamese: ‘How is the mother of Nam?’

“’She is good,’ I said—too loudly—trying to make myself heard over the groans and clanks of a passing truck.

“He was nodding. Behind him, the east bank of the river glowed wanly in the afternoon light. ‘Come on,’ I said. We crossed the bridge and walked to a nearby Dairy Queen. When I came out, two coffees in my hands, my father had gone down to the river’s edge. Next to him, a bundled-up bearded figure stooped over a burning gasoline drum. Never had I seen anything like it in Iowa City.

“’This is my son,’ my father said once I had scrambled down the wet bank, ‘the writer.’ I glanced quickly at him but his face gave nothing away. He lifted a hot paper cup out of my hand. ‘Would you like some coffee?’

‘’’Thank you, no.’ The man stood still, watching his knotted hands, palms, glowing orange above the rim of the drum. His voice was soft, his clothes heavy with his life. I smelled animals in him, and fuel, and rain.

“’I read his story,’ my father went on in lilting English, ‘about Vietnamese boat people.’ He gazed at the man, straight into his blank, rheumy eyes, then said as though delivering a punch line, ‘We are Vietnamese boat people.’

“We stood there for a long time, the three of us, watching the flames. When I lifted my eyes it was dark.

“’Do you have any money on you?’ my father asked me in Vietnamese.

“’Welcome to America,’ the man said through his beard. He didn’t look up as I closed his fist around the bills.”

This first story was partially autobiographical; the other six are completely invented, moving us next to Cartageña, Columbia, where the narrator has what he refers to as an office job, which is pretty good for a fourteen-year-old, except that office job translates to his being a hit man for the drug cartel, and now he is about to meet his director, who has some bad news for him.

“Meeting Elise,” set in New York, has as its protagonist Henry Luff, an aging, “well-regarded neo-figurative painter,” who is about to meet his daughter, Elise for the first time in seventeen years. Elise is a concert-level performer on the cello, in town for a major concert. She has also just announced her engagement. To her manager. “In seventeen years,” Luff muses, “I’d heard from Elise and her mother precisely three times. The first time, four years in, when her mother hit me up for $520.”

The money is for a cello.

Luff is having ongoing battles with his ex- and now his daughter, exacerbated as we watch, looking over his shoulder as it were while Luff suffers the indignity of sigmoidoscopy.

“Halflead Bay” is set in Australia, featuring young Jamie, a high-school junior whose interests focus on sea-related activities, fishing, surfing, and watching the world emerge through what already seems a wide-angle lens. And so, when Alison Fischer, whom he does not even dare to want, approaches him at the school water faucet, we are on our way to simple early-love, clash-of-social-classes romance. But Jamie’s mother, who has just begun to experience success with her painting, has been fighting a losing battle with MS and because of the expenses, something has to go.

“Hiroshima” takes us into the being of a young narrator: “Father’s garden is full of spirits, and I like it there. Maybe I am a spirit of the pine boards in the hallway between the entrance and the main room. In this Temple up in the hills, I am safe here. Spirit? So foolish, little turnip. This is what Big Sister calls me, Her face is white and filled with the Yamato spirit and I think of it every night before going to sleep. I want to look like her. You don’t become a spirit until you die, little turnip. Honorable death before surrender. She says this a lot. The radio says this a lot. Mother says nothing when Big Sister says this, wearing her designated nametag and armband and headband. She looks like a warrior when she comes home from mobilization…”

“Tehran Calling” plunks us down in the midst of yet another culture, where nothing translates out to be what it seemed, and the amazing flagship story of the collection, “The Ship,” more than a little reminiscent of Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” throws a young woman into a bond forged in emergency with another woman and her young son,

Nam Le, now fiction editor at “Harvard Review,” has an enviable record of short story publications, including the narratives in this collection. He is by degrees humorous, ironic, insightful, and most of all compassionate. His eye for relevant, story-related details allows him to make the leap of self a competent actor takes when portraying a role. Nam Le is able to do this with all his characters, creating voices with the right pitch, the right intensity, and the right sense of the predicament in which they flounder, looking for a solution. He is unerringly able to assume point of view with a conviction and accuracy that records his people on the hard drive of our memory. It is no stretch to compare his range and energy to Stephen Crane, or to serve notice of his page-by-page originality.