Wide-ranging, knife-sharp stories by a masterly 29-year-old.
By Nam Le
288 pages. Knopf.
Nam Le was born in Vietnam and raised in Australia, yet his debut collection of stories, The Boat (Knopf), reveals as mature and certain an American voice as just about any native-born writer twice his age. His prose evokes Philip Roth's—sure of itself, clean, and invisibly effective. These muscular and psychologically rich narratives take place in the United States, Australia, Colombia, and in a storm-tossed boat on the South China Sea in the story that gives the book its name. Le contends with a startlingly wide array of characters: a young man dealing with his difficult father ("My father was drawn to weakness, even as he tolerated none in me"); a 14-year-old in Medellín facing the consequences of being an assassin; a high school kid in Australia; an old, sick man in New York who encounters his long-lost daughter; a mother with two children escaping from Vietnam. What's notable is the structural soundness of these powerful and far-ranging pieces: Each one is built to exactly the shape, and flows in exactly the tone and language, that will suit the needs of the story. The final and longest story in the book, "The Boat," takes on the deepest issues of life, love, and death, something worthy of Conrad or James. Nam Le is a remarkably sophisticated new writer.