" In Vietnamese, the word for water and the word for a nation, a country, and a homeland are one and the same, " writes Lê Thi Diem Thúy in the epigraph of her novel The Gangster We Are All Looking For. That word, nuíóíc, headlines the final chapter of her poetic debut, but the association kicks in right from the start. Water carries this story and in many ways defines it. In this slim but moving volume, the first-person narrative of a young Vietnamese immigrant, images act like waves, sweeping over you before receding. The next wave of images may carry you a bit further, deepening your understanding of a situation youíve already witnessed. And the next may strike at a slightly different place, bringing its stinging clarity to an event not previously depicted.
The story carried on this tide is the familiar American saga of arrival, challenge, and eventual assimilation. In this case, a young girl and her father, along with four " uncles " who have become family through the shared experience, have escaped Vietnam by boat. (The year is 1978, when Lê and her father also emigrated by boat.) The unlikely " family " is sponsored by an elderly man, who dies before their papers are processed. When they do make it to San Diego, his widow presses her son to take in the " family, " and he does, though unwillingly. Over time, the men find jobs and homes. The little girl goes to school and learns English. Her father, Ba, manages to bring her mother over. And then it all begins to fall apart.
For Lêís unnamed narrator, a cheerful little girl, the events that befall the family are all of a piece. " Linda Vista, with its rows of yellow houses, is where we eventually washed to shore, " she says at the bookís opening, before going on to list the apartments (remembered primarily for their colors) in which the protagonist and her family have lived since coming to America. Washing ashore is, itís clear, not the same as arriving, but Lêís innocent narrator does not explain. Instead, she begins to show, in vivid, disconnected scenes, how she built her American life.
At first, it is all simple: the girl accepts the often condescending kindness of the host family, noting only that she and her father envy the less-favored " uncles, " who are not pressed into weekly outings. She urges her father to go to the beach, not understanding that there is a difference between the San Diego shoreline and the coast of Vietnam, where her mother was last seen. She sympathizes with a butterfly in a glass paperweight that she believes is crying to be set free. " Ba said it was no oneís fault that we lasted only one season at Melís place, " she says calmly before telling how her childish attempt to free the frozen insect went awry.
But such misadventures are only part of the familyís problem. There is also the long separation between Ba and his wife, which exacerbates their differences. She was from a Southern Catholic family; he was a Northerner, a Buddhist, and perhaps a criminal. He also drinks; eventually he works out his frustrations on his family with his fists. Was he a gangster? Is it the past that plagues this family, or their unsettled present? And what of the narratorís absent brother, a mystery not explained until close to the bookís end? As her parents argue, Lêís narrator takes on ó as children of dysfunctional families will ó the familial burden. Ma, she says, is in the kitchen " punctuating the pavement with dishes " ; Ba " jumps in his truck and drives away. " The narrator can only comment: " When I grow up I am going to be the gangster we are all looking for. "
She does eventually escape into an adult life that Lê gives short shrift. But the author compensates for this silence when her narrator returns home. Once again, her juxtaposition of events allows for drama without sentimentality. We read of " The nightmare of my fatherís departure, " what may be a depiction of his dying that begins with " his elbows drawn in toward his stomach, his back bent like a bow " and ends with " his eyes, once black and brilliant, are now empty of expression, like two pieces of volcanic rock that have been drowned in a river to cool. " This is followed by an earlier event: " The nightmare of my return. " After years away, she has come back to confront the bitter, violent man her father had become, unaware of his physical decline. " It destroys me, " she says, describing his swollen, trembling hands. " I didnít know how to find you to tell you, " says her mother. As Lê proves once again, the best way to tell is to show.