Questions of loyalty froth at the edges of Nam Le's muscular and impressive debut collection, "The Boat." In the title story, a young woman adrift on the South China Sea makes a horrifying decision about a sick child. In "Tehran Calling," a young professional travels to Iran and discovers that her best friend has become a revolutionary firebrand. The hero of "Halflead Bay" snags the girl of his dreams, but winds up in the middle of a punch-up that has more to do with his dying mother's honor than his own pride.
Le effortlessly gives all seven tales in "The Boat" a different register, structure, vocabulary and tone. "Halflead Bay," which unfolds in Australia, where Le partially grew up, is a wind-swept, craggy love story -- a modern-day "Wuthering Heights" set on the Continental Shelf. Le writes beautifully of the weather as a violent, sensual power that signals that some things cannot be changed or resisted: "The baked smells of the earth steamed open," he writes of one storm. "Potted music of water running through pipes, slapping against the earth; puddles strafed by raindrops."
The most impressive story in the bunch is "Cartagena," which bounces through the teeming slums of a Colombian city and brings to life Juan Pablo Merendez, a teenage assassin who has been roped into the drug business when an act of self-protection (and vengeance) puts him in desperate need of protection. Le gives Juan Pablo a stunningly vivid voice. The teenager speaks as if through a tunnel, the parameters of his attention narrowed to job and family, payment and loyalty. Then, in the story's agonizing twist, Juan Pablo's employer ratchets up the cost of continued protection to an unthinkable price.
Le must have conducted some research to enter these disparate worlds, but his stories never creak under the weight of reportage. Even "Hiroshima," a brief, heartbreaking tale about a young girl's routine in the hours before the bomb drops, has a riveting magnetism -- somehow truer than the awful truth of that day. In this story, as in others, Le never tries to throw his voice, or mimic how a narrator would speak. Instead, he creates a literary equivalent that is just articulate enough, unusual enough to hold our attention and keep us reading.
Le pulls this feat off again, to tragic-comic effect, in "Meeting Elise," in which a dying painter meets his 18-year-old cellist daughter for the first time. "Here's what I'll do," the man says to himself in the mirror, cranking himself up for one last run at his long-lost daughter. Then he sees himself as if from the outside. "My face stark white, a shock of bone and skin and hair. My teeth yellow, carious." Not since Ethan Canin's "The Emperor of Air" has a young writer imagined himself into an old man's head so effectively.
We are all encased, as if by accident, in such flesh, bound for deterioration, this book reminds.
There are other equally difficult writers' challenges.
In the opening story, "Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice," a young writer studying, as the author did, at the Iowa Writers' Workshop struggles to write the story of his father's survival of the My Lai massacre. He wants to resist becoming yet another slice of "hot" ethnic literature.
In the end, Le skirts this issue with amazing deftness. That first story is a signal that, yes, the author himself has thought about what he is supposed to write -- and chosen a different path. But it's not the first story that accomplishes this sidestep of expectation. It's the six stories that follow. And they do it as all great stories can. Their author, by sleight of hand and virtue of skill, forgets all that he "should be" and puts his searching, observant voice wherever he likes. It's a wonder to watch.
John Freeman of New York City is writing a book on the tyranny of e-mail.