By Richard von Busack
A truly ambitious collection of short stories by a novice writer. The Vietnamese-born, Australia-based Nam Le has the same kind of dedication to chronicling the stories of the wretched of the world that Robert Stone has. The seven tales here—whose protagonists are as varied as a wealthy, mortally ill artist in New York and a minor gunman in Cartagena's mobs—show something that you rarely see in first-time writers: a commitment to shed the skin and try to understand what goes on elsewhere. Admittedly, the first and the last stories, "Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice" and "The Boat," have Le facing his roots as a refugee. Through a layer of guilt and defective memory, "Nam," the feckless apprentice writer in "Love and Honor ...," a graduate of the University of Iowa program, is pulled in two contradictory directions. One force is a publishing industry that loves greenhorns' accounts of old-country brutality. Le skewers that trend: "You can't tell if the language is spare because the author intended it that way, or because he didn't have the vocab." The other force is Nam's father, called "Ba," a survivor of My Lai and a vet of the ARVN, whom the son tries to pump for information. The old man refuses to cooperate. And as far as the importance of having his story told, he dismisses it: "I'll remember. They will read and clap their hands and forget." "The Boat" is an illumination of one of the boat people's odysseys. Yet Le seems at his best in this collection in "Tehran Calling." An American girl named Sarah, who thinks she knows all about misery, makes a fateful trip to Iran to help a political activist friend. Le makes the paranoia tangible in this clamped-down city, which is in a state of heightened hysteria during a religious holiday: "Words everywhere—on trucks, street signs, T-shirts—seemed like language that had been melted, meandering up and down like quavers and clefs on invisible staves." (By Nam Le; Knopf; 272 pages, $22.95 hardback)
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