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The Boat (Rough-Cut)
The Boat (Rough-Cut)
Nam Le
Knopf, 2008
288 pp., 22.95

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Reviewed by Linda McCullough Moore

Stories That Open the Heart

Nam Le's characters may not be from our hometown, but they belong to our family.

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Le's characters in ways both softly subtle and profound betray an understanding that we are not our own gods, that we do enter into new life by dying to ourselves, that the glory that awaits us sometimes lets imagination hint and intimate in dreams that sweeten mortal days. Authorship. Writing as pleasing as this grabs you by the chin and turns your head and makes you look up at the One, so profligate, beneficent, enabling in deft grace. We are no more than sensible, I think, in praising God for art that's beautiful and true the way the writing of Nam Le surely is. And do we denigrate this author—whose writing all but splits the skies—by thanking God for what he has written? I think not. We only nudge, renew the wondering, hardly novel to the maker of such art: whence this? Tyger, Tyger, Burning bright … .

Not all stories in this book are equally strong, though all have earned the right to stand here and contend. And contend each story does, and ably, with our preconceptions and our knee–jerk notions. Each story sets up camp in its own corner of the world, and stands alone, uniquely crafted. Maggie Bromell says a short story is a thing that starts at the beginning and ends at the end, and when the writer gets it right, you can't imagine anything that's missing from before or after. Le gets it right. He is one of those writers who let you know what's going on from the first sentence, then let you feel the satisfying jolt when things make hairpin turns, and leave you at the end having actually completed the telling of the tale.

Le might be mistaken for transparent in his pure and simple lovely prose, his easy storytelling. But not so fast. The reader finishes this book and wants to start again, because, although these people do not come from our hometown, they do come from our family. They may not eat our food, but we have tasted the same things, or surely will. They have things to teach us that story is the way to learn.

I do hope I will be accused here of not providing enough by way of story summaries, and that my accusers will be left with no alternative but to run out immediately and buy this book. One delights to praise effusively the man who has written this collection, who has done whatever it has taken to make it come to be. Good, honorable work, the sacrifice of privacy, the willingness to give the self to art in every way that is required, from opening veins to living for long months of writing in the middle of the pain of other people.

And so we reach the part of the proceedings where we name the names of writers Nam Le calls to mind. (Zola, Crane, Dreiser, Joyce have been whispered in this regard.) But just this once, what say we forebear. How about we just pay tribute as due and not compare Le's work to anyone's. I would so like to let him to stand alone. He does it well.

Linda McCullough Moore, essayist and fiction–writer, lives and writes in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she is completing a novel, World Enough and Time.

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