The single-author short story collection has its devoted fans. But The Boat - the first collection from Nam Le, who has established himself in the short fiction genre in venues like One Story and Zoetrope - is so engaging, so unequivocally well done, that it's sure to appeal to any fan of good writing.
From the opening tale of The Boat, it's hard not to be giddy: Wait, was that a brilliantly self-conscious and humorous slice of the writing life, which doubled as a poignant story about fathers and sons and family tragedies? Yes. Yes, it was. Things only get better from there. Nam Le is a chameleon of voices and points of view, leading the reader through the experiences of an older man, a disillusioned young woman, a boy on the cusp of adulthood, a teenage girl. The Boat takes us all over the world with fantastic verisimilitude.
"Tehran Calling" is the story of an American woman's attempt to understand life while visiting a friend in Iran, while "Cartagena" is a sobering sketch of a teenage hit man in Colombia. "Halflead Bay" is an enviable achievement - an adolescent's battle to find courage as his life begins to turn upside down, the story developed with perfect suspense. The vaguely panicked "Hiroshima" follows two girls trying to conduct life just before the bomb is dropped, and the title story offers urgency, poignancy and heartbreaking tragedy.
As if the stories themselves weren't enough to make The Boat a worthy summer read, the skill of the author is a spectacle to behold. He manages to avoid so many pitfalls. He doesn't shy away from stark and disturbing images, for example, yet he doesn't rely on the grotesque to create effective writing. The reader can sense his personal investment in his work, but the stories aren't even close to self-indulgent. It's enough to give a person a literary crush.
Each story is dark and deep, exquisitely constructed and beautifully told. Nam Le is a studied, competent and graceful writer, and The Boat is both a contemporary treasure and a harbinger of good things to come.
Jessica Inman writes from Tulsa, Oklahoma.