The Boat

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

The Boat opens with what looks like a grim, predictable exercise in navel-gazing: a story about an M.F.A. student with writer’s block. Its Asian protagonist has almost everything in common with the author, including his short-story portfolio. His friends have been badgering him to mine his heritage: “You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing,” one says. “But instead you choose to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins and Hiroshima orphans.” The good news is that after this opening self-critique, Le moves away from himself, offering characters from four different continents, a boat full of refugees and, yes, a group of Colombian assassins. (Alas, no lesbian vampires.)

The stories connect across country, class and circumstance—not only through Le’s ambition to nail each milieu, but through his obsession with the ways people live in and reaveal their cultures. Given the self-consciousness of the first piece, it’s surprising how straightforwardly each successive story immerses readers in its own distant setting. The book’s success isn’t just a matter of scene-setting; it also depends on Le’s characters and his classic, coincidences-explained-later plotting. He’ll make you marvel at the web his South American hit men are caught in, and he’ll make you worry for them.

But what about the great, underrepresented culture of the opening story’s nagging grad student? As it turns out, Le’s skill extends even there. In a piece about an Iranian activist and the clueless white friend who comes to visit her, he writes the part of the American interloper with sympathy and aplomb. If this is navel-gazing, there are X-Ray specs involved; seeing through himself, through his characters, Le offers real insight.

Le reads May 11, 2008.

By Nam Le. Knopf, $22.95.