Viet Thanh Nguyen’s new story collection “The Refugees” showcases the same astute and penetrating intelligence that characterized his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Sympathizer.” Nguyen appears at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 24, at the Seattle Public Library.
by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Grove Press, 209 pp., $25
First novels don’t come much finer than “The Sympathizer,” the 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winner by Vietnamese-American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen. The book, with its strong echo of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” in its opening lines, grabs you from the start.
“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces,” its narrator proclaims. “Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds.”
The speaker is a communist agent embedded with the South Vietnamese military during the Vietnam War. The choices he makes over the course of the book grow dizzyingly confused after he joins the South Vietnamese exodus to the U.S., following the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Viet Thanh Nguyen
The author of “The Refugees” will appear at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 24, at the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave. Free (206-386-4636; spl.org).
“The Refugees,” Nguyen’s new book of eight short stories set in Vietnam and California, doesn’t match the sweep of his brilliant novel. But it shows the same wily, penetrating mind at work. Most of its characters fled Vietnam after the communist takeover. But their stories vary sharply from tale to tale.
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In “Black-Eyed Women,” the female narrator — a professional ghostwriter with ghosts of her own who haunt her refugee past — is hired to help the sole survivor of an airline crash tell his story for publication. As she shapes his memoir, she’s visited by her dead brother who makes her see her own survival in an increasingly disquieting light.
In “War Years” and “Someone Else Besides You,” Nguyen focuses on formidable parents who shock their children with their actions. The martinet father in “Someone” takes drastic spur-of-the-moment measures to correct the mistakes he believes his recently divorced son has made in his personal life. The mother in “War Years,” proprietor of a Vietnamese market in San Jose, has no patience with a customer who is all but extorting cash from her community to raise funds for a guerrilla campaign to retake Vietnam from the communists. The storekeeper mom, with her teenage son in tow, confronts this manipulative espouser of lost causes — with utterly unexpected results.
Other stories pay heed to weaker characters. Arthur Arellano, the ailing out-of-control gambler/drinker in “The Transplant,” strays on the wrong side of the law as he tries to thank the son of the man who donated a liver to him. The dad in “Fatherland” names all three children of his second marriage after the three children of his first marriage — and has a pitiful explanation for why he did it.
Nguyen is an expert on prickly family dynamics. In “I’d Love You to Want Me,” a Vietnamese-American wife deals with her husband’s worsening dementia and their son’s tactless attempts to force a solution on her. In “The Americans,” a retired African-American soldier and his Japanese wife visit their daughter, a teacher in Saigon who, in her father’s eyes, can’t do a single thing right. Nguyen hits grace notes in the wrap-ups of both tales, yielding an inch or two to sentimentality, but no more.
He can also be a sly humorist. Prime example: “The Other Man,” in which Liem, an attractive young Vietnamese refugee, winds up living with a bickering gay couple in San Francisco. The story comes with some Wilde-worthy lines, as well as a tough realization on the part of Liem who, looking back on his escape from Vietnam, realizes “how little other lives mattered to him when his own was at stake.”
“The Refugees” confirms Nguyen as an agile, trenchant writer, able to inhabit a number of contrary points of view. And it whets your appetite for his next novel.