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ADRIFT IN A STRANGE SEA|
'The Gangster We Are All Looking For' is a poignant tale of survival
Reviewed by Wendy L. Smith
Like shipwrecked sailors, a desperate immigrant family stays just afloat, continually struggling against ambivalent sponsors, greedy landlords, thoughtless employers and their own doubts about themselves and their lives.
"Linda Vista, with its rows of yellow houses," le thi diem thuy opens, "is where we eventually washed to shore."
The Vietnamese word for water, she explains in her epigraph, "and the word for a nation, a country, and a homeland are one and the same: nu'ó'c."
And, in her novel, these definitions, so seemingly unrelated, blend, blur – and draw meaning from one another. The narrator's family longs for any presence of water: an apartment swimming pool in their first home in East San Diego, the ocean, a fish tank; even a blue tarp will do. The narrator – just 6 at the outset of the story – remembers the grief of her older brother's drowning in Vietnam as she lugs home a bag of ice for a party on a hot day.
The narrator's portrait of her parents – broken bits of memory – bares their pain, their exile upon exile. Her father is a one-time Buddhist tough who marries into a disapproving Catholic family (the bride's father chased her from her house with a broom). The narrator knows little about her father in Vietnam and the aptness of his "gangster" title: He was a soldier incarcerated in the war, a heroin addict, a man "with the will to give nothing away."
But she identifies most with him: He is the only parent to accompany her on the perilous journey from Vietnam, and the one who teaches her emotional survival, "how to keep moving even when a bone in the leg was broken or a muscle in the chest was torn."
The disapproved-of, war-broken marriage, combined with the stress of flight, causes grief and lingering guilt (for the father for having lost his wife in the chaos of fleeing; they were reunited after arriving in San Diego), and for the mother, who experiences bouts of rage. When she receives a photo of her parents in the mail, she has a breakdown: "Ma kept crying ... and told him not to touch her with his gangster hands. Ba clenched his hands into tight fists and punched the walls. 'What hands?! What hands?!' he yelled. 'Let me see the gangster! Let me see his hands!?' I see his hands punch hands punch hands punch blood."
His hands are no longer the knowing and powerful hands of a gangster; they are the hands of a gardener "ordered around like a child." As she watches her parents fight, the narrator decides, "When I grow up I am going to be the gangster we are all looking for."
In this poignant moment, she becomes someone with a future far away from Linda Vista, someone who will write stories with her own powerful hands, stories of family and pain. As neighbors gather that day to watch the family fight, she gives them "my evil one-eyed look, focusing all my energy into my left eye ... as if my eye is a bullet." Gangsters are survivors.
"The Gangster We Are All Looking For" is prose poem, spare and beautiful; it is a novel sharp with pain and grief, about drowning, about "people who, feeling they have no recourse to change the circumstances of their lives, fold down, crumble into their own shadows." It is not triumphant, for there is little triumph in mere survival. But it is honest, and in honesty one finds relief and hope.
Wendy L. Smith lives in Linda Vista and teaches English at San Diego Miramar College.
The Gangster We Are All Looking For
le thi diem thuy
Knopf, 158 pages, $18
Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.