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The Gangster We Are All Looking For
A novel by Lê Thi Diem Thúy
A Non-review by
J. Stefan-Cole

Few books can get away with the bare bones minimum of Lê Thi Deim Thúy's novel, THE GANSTER WE ARE ALL LOOKING FOR; Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. And I'm not sure Ms Thúy, who came to the United States as a child in 1978, leaving her native Vietnam by boat with her father, actually does.

Annie Ernaux comes to mind with, A WOAMAN'S STORY, or her novelistic, rail thin and starkly minimal memoir, SIMPLE PASSION. Don DeLillo's novel, THE BODY ARTIST, gets away with offering the scantiest information possible, forcing the reader to practically pull out a sewing kit to weave through lengthy moods and emotions to get at the events underneath, but a story does pay off in language and texture, in taking the reader to a different place. Thúy's novel feels more like a memoir, like a mistily recalled past than a full blown story with any degree of plot. In fact, there is no plot, only a fragmented sequence of events beginning with the arrival in San Diego of six refugees from Vietnam, a little girl whose name we never learn, her father, she calls him Ba, and six "uncles" who soon disappear from the first person narrative. Early on I began to suspect that what I was reading was meant as a memoir and was re-worked into a novel. I certainly could be wrong about that, but the book makes much more sense to me as a memoir.

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There is an elegant fluency to the writing, finely detailed descriptions with never a word out of place, a very painterly touch. "During the day, the sun beat down hard on those streets, warping the sensations, muting the sight and sound and feel of everything." The girl's mother, Ma, eventually makes it to San Diego, having missed her chance on the night her daughter and the others slipped away in fishing boats. The police had been alerted to the planned escape and she had to be left behind. Ba manages to find work but the family constantly moves, from apartment to apartment, neighborhood to neighborhood. The mother sews or works in Vietnamese restaurants, always longing to own her own restaurant. Ba wants to be a gardener, but that has to wait while he takes welding jobs and paints houses, other odd jobs to make ends meet. An immigrant's life: "The three of us slept in one room. My parents' double bed was separated from my single bed by a side table with a lamp on it. The base of the lamp was a figurine of an old Chinese man crouching on a rock, his wide pant legs pushed up past his knees. In his hands he held a fishing pole, and his eyes were forever fixed on one spot in the pool of light that was cast back down on the table." Nice, but the whole book is built upon such whispered passages, and tiny observations. I kept waiting for something to happen, for the whisperings to yield their treasure, but they never quite did.

The title is great, and I thought, the father will get himself tangled up with Asian bad guys. He was a bit of a bad guy back in the home country, and after the war was sent to a camp to be rehabilitated; he had fought for the losing side, the South. The girl's mother fell for him before the war, seeing his profile in a darkened movie theatre. He told her his family was from the North and were semi-aristocrats, and he showed her an extra long toe to prove it. He was rumored to be a punk, a gangster, seller of black market cigarettes, and a soldier specially trained by the American forces. Ba tells his daughter, "There are thieves, gamblers, drunks I've met who remind me of people in my family. It's the way they're dreamers. My family's a garden full of dreamers lying on their backs, staring at the sky, drunk and choking on their dreams." We learn the girl was born while he was away fighting in the war. But what is true? Was Ba a petty gangster? Images, the feel of Vietnam come across, the fishing village where the girl lived, mangoes, a courtyard with chickens, the fishing boats. All impressionistically told, whispered. Who is the gangster we are all looking for?

This is an immigrant's story, so popular these days. Novels of relocations from more exotic places, Asia or Africa, say, to someplace Western that is safer maybe but bland, like Europe or America. The cultural transitions found in Monica Ali's writing, or Jhumpa Lahiri's. Okay, a big topic, but there still has to be a story. I'm not sure the little Vietnamese girl telling us her world, that we follow into puberty, to kissing boys and finally running away from home adds up to tell one. Ba and Ma never quite make it as Americans. They fight, Ba drinks too much, finds another Vietnamese to talk about the past with--their youth in Vietnam, the war, the color red--while drinking beer. He takes to smashing things like TV sets, chasing friends down streets while brandishing a hammer, then sits darkly penitent for a whole day. Ba stares silently past his daughter, "If I were sitting across from him, he would stare at a point on the wall behind me, his eyes moving like an arrow through my hair, pinning me in place," and finally the little girl is a teenager and she busts out, runs away. Like her father, she is strong-willed, unafraid, and impulsive. Would Ba have been another man if things had turned out differently in Vietnam? If he had not been transplanted, victimized by history? We don't learn specifically why the family left Vietnam. Is Ba just an ordinary guy or is he something more, a something inexpressible that has been thwarted by events? It is as if the narrator does not want to stick around to find out. So we are left looking at a family album, wondering about all these faces presented to us. We don't get a story in Lê Thi Diem Thúy's book so much as an intriguing pile of snapshots to sort through.

©March 2004 J. Stefan-Cole

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