The lives of an American GI and a Vietnamese prostitute briefly intersect in the early years of the Vietnam war.
Known primarily as a playwright, Rabe (Dinosaurs on the Roof, 2009, etc.) delivers his first Vietnam novel. When Pfc. Whitaker, assigned to Fort Meade, receives his orders to ship out for Vietnam, his life starts to border on the surreal. He gets drunk, wanders the streets of D.C. and attends an antiwar rally. Meanwhile, in Vietnam, Quach Ngoc Lan lives something of a parallel life, selling her body to help support her family and, for the moment, blissfully ignorant of the impending arrival of Whitaker. For the first half of the novel, Rabe writes antiphonal chapters, weaving two separate narratives that help introduce us to his two main characters, whose lives are defined only by their separation. Each is obsessed with sex, Whitaker as an escape from facing what he feels might be his impending death, and Lan as a means to an end. When Whitaker finally arrives in Vietnam, it’s fated that his path should cross with that of Lan. He becomes smitten both with her beauty and her sexual skill. She, too, finds Whitaker different from her other encounters with American GIs, more vulnerable—more tender and more enigmatic. Rabe’s Vietnamese characters tend to speak a pidgin poetry that at times can verge on the incomprehensible: “No babysan can come. Numba ten. Beg money. Not nice. Other GI no like boucoup babysan talk GI—him eating—‘Gimme money, gimme money.’ Numba ten.” Rabe never romanticizes his characters. This is no Romeo-and-Juliet story of unrequited love and desire. Instead, Whitaker and Lan play out their roles in both tender and brutal ways.
A powerful statement about sex, war and identity.