Tales of fathers sail on in 'The Boat'

by John Mark Eberhart

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

11 June 2008


LOS ANGELES - Father’s Day is a Sunday. Nam Le has time to go out and buy his dad a card or a gift, but he really needn’t bother.

“The Boat,” his debut book, serves as both. Several of the seven masterful short stories here deal with that old generational bugaboo, the tension between fathers and their sons - and yes, daughters.

Le, 29, knows this does not make him unique. Literature abounds with such stories, from Shakespeare’s “King Lear” to Pat Conroy’s “The Prince of Tides.”

“There’s an incredibly rich tradition of father/son literature, in long form as well as in poetry and in short stories,” Le said in a recent interview at BookExpo America. “In my case ... you know, there can be a natural reticence between fathers and sons. There’s often a sense that the most important emotional transactions aren’t being spoken at all.”

Such is the case in Le’s opening story, “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice.” In it, a young writer in graduate school is working on a piece of fiction even as he receives a visit from his father. We readers are not privy to all the hurts between the two men, yet Le somehow makes their shared pain palpable on these pages.

The story is a piece of what critics like to call “metafiction,” or writing that’s about writing. The main character, like his creator, is a writer named Nam.

“It concerned me,” Le confessed. “If you think about it, the story is annoying in so many ways. It uses so many hackneyed plot devices; you’ve got the typewriter with one copy of the story, the blazing gasoline drum at the end, the father/son stuff, the writer who’s also an alcoholic.”

But Le added he was consciously trying “to play up the essential absurdity of that type of writing, what people call metafiction - what people talk about as elliptical fiction or autobiographical fiction.”

Le is cagey about which elements of the story are drawn from his life. He does allow that he fictionalizes heavily. And his real father is much more supportive of his writing than is the fictional father of the fictional Nam.

Le was born in Vietnam but grew up in Australia, which he still calls home. His father, after reading “The Boat” in galleys, expressed admiration to his son, even offered to translate the stories into Vietnamese.

By contrast, the father in the story reads his son’s writing and apparently does something to the sole copy of the piece that any professional writer would find heinous, even devastating. Apparently - for the ending of “Love and Honor” is woolly enough that we cannot be 100 percent sure exactly what transpires, at least in an emotional sense.

Earlier drafts had been more specific, Le said. He then decided to remove what had been a key expository passage.

“It was a very deliberate decision to clear that out. I didn’t want to crystallize the tragedy (of what) might have happened to the father ... or to the character. The tragedy in this story is essentially one that hangs over the lives of these characters every minute of every day.”

“Meeting Elise” is another generational yarn, but this one concerns a father and daughter who have not seen each other since the girl was an infant. The father is a New York painter, wealthy and well-known. Daughter Elise is now a young cellist, engaged to be married, whose talents are wowing the world - she’s about to make her debut at Carnegie Hall, in fact.

Le displays considerable skill here, plotting the story so that much of it dances on the edge of the “meeting” of the title. Every time father and daughter seem about to shake hands (it’s a stretch to expect they’ll hug), something happens.

Le took one storytelling cue from Chekhov, who spoke, Le said, of “having a loaded gun in the first act, and at some point it’s got to go off.” The trigger here is an emotional one; will dad and daughter meet or won’t they? And if they do, will it be fulfilling or disastrous?

Yet the author emphasized he didn’t want it to be a mere “either/or” story. At its heart, “Meeting Elise” is about loss.

“What is the greatest loss that anyone can feel? It seems to me it’s a parent losing a child. Then I thought to myself, `Well, hang on; what if the child is still alive, but all connections between parent and child have been severed?’”

Le’s triumph is that Elise’s character emerges every bit as fully as does that of her father, despite the fact that the latter occupies the storytelling stage.

“It was a challenge,” Le said. “I knew I definitely had to keep Elise offstage,” but also give her “a chance to make her case” about the emotional damage between the two characters.

He did so through Elise’s phone calls, notes and in some cases through her fiance, whom the father finds highly objectionable and refers to as “the Leech.”

Like “Love and Honor,” there is redemption of a sort in “Meeting Elise,” though readers might be hard-pressed to say how or why it occurs. Le’s denouement for the latter story is risky, yet taking risks is largely what separates literature from mere entertainment. As the father blusters his way into the final lines of the final scene, the passage teeters upon the edge of maudlin. But it does not fall.

“I was very aware that there was a certain looseness and lyricism that was coming into the language,” Le said, smiling slightly.

He knew he had a choice: Fight it or go with it. He went with it - giving this particular father an exit both heartrending and eloquent.

Topics: nam le | the boat
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