The Boat, a book of short stories published in 2008, is a participant in perhaps the greatest year of short story collections we have seen in a century. It is rare to find short story collections that amount to more than uneven attempts but still more uncommon to have a year with five or six collections that match brilliance of Hemingway, O’Connor or Chekov. What distinguishes The Boat and its fellow collections (Unaccustomed Earth, Better Angel, Diction, and Dangerous Laughter) is that they embody a consistent tone that subtly tells us these stories need to be told. This tone is a sign of confidence and assurance in Nam Le’s first collection and it’s coupled with his oddly familiar settings that build with urgency as our characters struggle with their own identities: cultural, ethnic, and professional.
Yet still, like all first collections, The Boat contains the apologetic, self defense of the writer that can be dangerously wearisome. Here it is in the first story of the collection where a character extremely reminiscent in name and personality to the author struggles through writers workshops being criticized as ‘too ethnic.’ This is not a new technique (think D.F. Wallace’s Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way or Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock) but still it’s much preferred to long tedious apologetic introductions or random and misguided author intrusions that often exhaust the reader. Nam Le is in no way wearisome, however, simply because his own self-criticisms are distant from the rest of his collection and in reading the remainder of his stories you realize his insecurities must have washed away soon after writing about them. In name and history he is writing about himself, but the faults Nam Le has in the story do not translate or even remain recognizable in the other stories.
Le is an immigrant, and his stories highlight the struggle of migration, immersion, and nationality. He never, however, starts his stories with these themes, but seems to have, like his fellow 2008 authors, an urgency to just simply write and to show, allowing his personal experiences and themes to ooze out along the way. This is not the best collection of short stories of 2008 (Adrian’s A Better Angel takes that torch for me), but it is a wonderful contribution to a year where literature and culture seemed poised to discuss identity and courageous enough to display it.