The Boat [Buy Now]

By Nam Le

Knopf, 272 pages, $23

Questions of loyalty froth at the edges of Nam Le’s astonishing debut story collection, The Boat.

In the title piece, a young woman adrift on the South China Sea makes a horrifying decision about a sick child. “Tehran Calling” tells the tale of a young professional who discovers her best friend has turned into 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.

Not yet 30, 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, a violent, sensual power which signals some things cannot be changed, or resisted: “The baked smells of the earth steamed open,” Le writes of one storm. “Potted music of 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) makes him in desperate need of protection.

Le gives Juan Pablo a stunningly vivid voice. He 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, heart-breaking tale about a young girls’ routine in the days and 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 mimic how a person like his narrator would speak. Instead, he creates a literary equivalent that is just articulate and 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, trying to prime himself up for one last run at his long-lost daughter. Then he sees himself. “My face stark white, a shock of bone and skin and hair. My teeth yellow, carious.”

We are all encased, as if by accident, in such flesh, bound for deterioration, this book reminds us. The miracle of these stories though is how their author, by sleight of hand and virtue of skill, forgets all that and puts his searching, observant voice wherever he likes.