3.5 out of 5: The Boat, Nam Le's debut short story collection, starts predictably enough with an autobiographical story about a Vietnamese student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop hosting his father for a visit. This story has everything we've come to expect from such stories: the tension between Westernized children and their more traditional parents, the pressures to assimilate conflicting with the desire to retain individuality, and the feelings of not truly belonging to any particular culture or people. Despite these clichéd elements, this first story, titled Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice, is the best in the collection. Le uses familiar themes to perfectly craft a story that is both heartbreaking and shocking.
After the first story, everything familiar evaporates. The second story, Cartagena, takes place in the Columbia slums and is told from the perspective of a sicario (an assassin) who has been ordered to assassinate a friend. The next story is told by an aging artist in New York City, confronting his bodily failings and attempting to come to terms with the fact that his grown daughter doesn't want to see him. Other stories in the collection cover the globe, including Australia, Japan, Iran, and the South China Sea.
The Boat illustrates Le's agility with language and his mastery of the short story form. Clearly, Le has talent in spades, but something is lost in this blatant display of virtuosity. As we're racing around the world, we're left wondering what Le's really trying to say besides "See what I can do?" A couple of the longer stories (e.g., Halflead Bay and Tehran Calling) read like fragments from novels rather than fully realized short stories. Despite these (mostly) minor failings, The Boat is an impressive debut from a writer to watch in the future.