A polished and intense debut story collection of astonishing range.
Some of the stories border on novellas, and this allows the author, who was born in Vietnam in 1979, more latitude to develop the complexity of his characters as well as his twisted narrative strands. The opening story, “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” is a brilliantly conceived narrative about a writer called Nam who is trying to meet some deadlines at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. When his father, a Vietnamese immigrant who “was drawn to weakness, even as he tolerated none in me,” interrupts both Nam’s schedule and his personal life, Nam begins to fret, for he’s worried about being able to produce a story on the tight deadline he faces. He’s not interested in falling back on the “typical” survival story about Vietnamese boat people, and he remembers that at an earlier time his father confessed to having witnessed the My Lai massacre as a boy of 14. This revelation leads Nam to a stunning realization about the nature of father-son relationships, and his epiphany becomes the true subject of his story. “Halflead Bay,” the longest story in the collection, finds Jamie, a recent rugby hero at his school, being seduced by the popular Alison—and then beset by Alison’s erstwhile boyfriend, the egregiously Neanderthal Dory. (A complicating subplot involves Jamie’s mother slowly dying from MS.) Among the other entries is “Hiroshima,” which considers a girl whose life is to be radically altered by the incipient dropping of the atomic bomb, and “Tehran Calling,” which examines the relationship between two friends, an American and an Iranian, and the gulf that divides them during the Muslim holy week of Ashura. The book is very good, even if sometimes the stories lack satisfying resolutions. Ironically, and slyly, with a nod to the opening story, the final piece, which gives the book its name, is an imaginative reconstruction of what it felt like to be a boat person, to launch into a 12-day journey with no foreseeable end.