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Author le thi diem thuy was born in Phan Thiet, southern Vietnam. (Photo/Paula Allen)

From The Asian Reporter, V14, #3 (January 13, 2004), page 11.

A curse and a miracle

The Gangster We Are All Looking For

By le thi diem thuy

Knopf, 2003

Hardcover, 158 pages, $18.00

By Josephine Bridges

"Linda Vista, with its rows of yellow houses, is where we eventually washed to shore."

The Gangster We Are All Looking For opens and closes where water meets land, the narrative shifting quietly back and forth, through the time between childhood and adulthood and the space between Vietnam and California, as waves advance and recede. And like the water described here that takes the form of oceans, rain, snow, tears, swimming pools, ice, rice paddies, and wells, this novel is spellbinding.

We never discover the narrator’s name, but we learn that she is six years old when she arrives in San Diego from Vietnam, which, like the author, she left by boat with her father. Her mother arrives later. The narrator has an older brother, but her references to him are mysterious and we only slowly learn his whereabouts.

The narrator’s mother says "war is a bird with a broken wing flying over the countryside, trailing blood and burying crops in sorrow. If something grows in spite of this, it is both a curse and a miracle." The war lingers in the background while the narrator’s parents struggle in a new country with the daily issues of work and shelter, and the burden of their personal history. "When my mother, a Catholic schoolgirl from the South, decided to marry my father, a Buddhist gangster from the North, her parents disowned her."

The narrator escapes the discord of her family home, where "after fighting with each other, my parents would make up with me," by repeatedly running away. "Whereas my father would disappear into himself when haunted," le thi diem thuy writes, "I would leap out of windows and run. If there were no windows, I would kick down doors."

Even the characters who inhabit only a few paragraphs of this book are vivid. A landlord "suspected each and every one of those living in the building’s sixteen units. They were all capable of having done this. They were people who broke things." A Mexican baker working in a French bakery "listened to English- language tapes and repeated aloud the sentences and phrases as he moved around the kitchen. ‘Hello,’ he said to a bag of flour, before he lifted it off the ground and carried it to the counter."

The Gangster We Are All Looking For is a poetic novel of an ordinary life observed in such exquisite detail that it shimmers with mystery and wonder. The narrator’s father never answers the phone that rings and rings. When her mother asks him, "Did the police come for you?" we have no idea what she is talking about. In a photograph lost in the aftermath of an eviction, the parents who disowned the narrator’s mother "are sitting in the attic, sitting like royalty. Shining in the dark, buried by a wrecking ball."

At the novel’s end the little family walks on the beach and the narrator notices that "in the silence following each wave’s crash scattered sparks of light appeared across the sand." These sparks of light are fish, and they crawl on the wet shoreline. While her parents lean against each other, the narrator runs "like a dog unleashed, toward the lights."

We wish the narrator and her family well as we wake from the dreamy state this novel evokes, and find that our own lives are just a little stranger, more luminous.


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