Seven stories of the world

In his new book,The Boat, Nam Le writes with the skill and perspective of a seasoned craftsman.

In his new book,The Boat, Nam Le writes with the skill and perspective of a seasoned craftsman.

His work gives off the aura of someone who’s been around and thought through a lot. If you didn’t know any better, you would probably find it hard to believe that The Boat is his first book and that he is only 29 years old.

Le was born in Vietnam, raised in Australia and has received fellowships from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, as well as many other honors in his short writing career. All these places, along with many other exotic locales, show up in The Boat, an assemblage of seven short stories.

The range of characters in the collection is vast. The protagonists are both male and female with greatly varying ages. Children, teenagers, 20-somethings and middle-aged characters all take the spotlight at different points.

Settings, too, help define each story’s uniqueness. Stories take place in Iowa, Columbia, New York, Australia, Hiroshima, Tehran and Vietnam. The result is seven portraits of very different lives. This variety is intriguing, but what is so impressive is how Le combines these diverse characters and places to make a distinctly original story.

The first story, “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” sets the stage for the six vignettes to follow. It is about a 25-year-old Vietnamese writing student in Iowa whose strict father visits for three days during a busy time for the young man.

Le does a funny thing by starting off the book with a story that seems autobiographical, before switching things up. The young writer in “Love and Honor …” struggles with what to write about, not wanting to delve into his personal history, while fellow students discuss how “hot” ethnic literature is right now. The cleverness of this decision is more apparent as the book moves along and eventually ends with “The Boat,” the story of an overcrowded vessel of Vietnamese refugees traveling at sea, plagued by sickness and death.

“Cartagena” is the story of a 14-year-old boy enlisted as a hitman by a character known as El Padre. The boy has to deal with the ramifications of sparing one of his victims, which creates a palpable tension. Like all his stories, “Cartagena” is made to seem authentic by the way the characters relate to their age, experience and place they live. It’s easy to believe that teenage assassins think and speak the way Le’s characters do.

The story “Hiroshima” is another depiction of a young narrator. Written in the first person, the story follows a third-grade girl as she details life in Hiroshima during World War II. There is no dialogue, only long paragraphs written in a stream of consciousness narrative. Le’s protagonist explains the alarms that ring out sometimes during the day, and how she is taught to react. She knows that when only one U.S. plane flies overhead, it is probably taking a picture, and that when Americans drop bombs, they come in great numbers.

The problem each character faces is specific to their life, but the emotions they elicit–loss, grief, awareness of reality–are utterly universal. As a whole, the collection is quite somber, but very well put together. Le’s prose is descriptive and rich without being overdone. He does his craft proud.

Le currently works as the fiction editor for the Harvard Review. As readers, we can only hope he is still writing on the side, and that he will be a presence in the literary world for many years to come.

The Boat****Nam LeAlfred A. Knopf Publishers$22.95