Eugene Weekly : Books : 6.5.08

Empire Falls
Fictional and real consequences of U.S. foreign policy
by Suzi Steffen

THE BOAT, fiction by Nam Le. Knopf, 2008. Hardcover, $22.95. 


Without the excesses of the Truman Doctrine, I daresay Nam Le’s gorgeously crafted first book never would have entered the world’s consciousness.

Historical digression (skip to the next paragraph if you know this already): The Truman Doctrine, laid out in 1947, says that “it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” This bold statement came at the start of the Cold War, soon after Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech set the tone of fear that communism would rapidly advance across Europe. Truman’s speech helped the U.S. justify interventions and invasions in a variety of countries, starting with Greece but hardly limited to Europe — and clearly including Vietnam.

From that country, Nam Le’s family fled to Australia when he was a child. Le became a corporate attorney at first but pursued his writing life at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His lovely book of short stories shows the imprint of that education, which puts a premium on prose suffused with the beauty of English, especially at moments of unspoken emotional crises. In the impressive opening story “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” the narrator, who closely resembles but isn’t identical to the author, must deal with issues that hit Iowa grad students of color especially hard: literary white folks’ romance with, jealousy of and dismissal of literary work by people of color. Should the narrator write stories about his “ethnic” past? He tries during a visit from his father. At a moment of immense narrative tension, Le writes, “The river was behind him. The wind was full of acid. In the slow float of light I looked away, down at the river. On the brink of freezing, it gleamed in large, bulging blisters.” Short story readers sense a neon sign blinking, “Emotional revelation ahead!” 

But then, Le, merely 29 years old, often succeeds with both the beauty and the revelations. In five of the six other stories, he moves the reader through life as a young girl just before the bombing of Hiroshima; a 14-year-old kid in the slums of Medellín, Colombia; an 18-year-old kid in a dying Australian port town; a young American woman visiting Tehran; and a successful, wrecked older artist in New York. Impressive, no? Except for the Hiroshima story, so clearly constructed from hours of research (and so similar to Keiji Nakazawa’s great graphic novels Barefoot Gen), these first- and close third-person narratives capture glimpses of intensely felt lives. And the final story, “Boat,” returns to the issue of “the ethnic writer” as Le recreates the life of one Vietnamese refugee trying to find tenuous threads of survival, love and community on the unimaginably horrific journey.

Save for Le’s Australia story (really a novella), his entire book reflects, in some way, the consequences of U.S. foreign policy. And what’s the deal with that policy? Where did it come from; who carries it out; what don’t many of us know about what the U.S. and corporations do around the world? John Perkins will tell you. In The Secret History of the American Empire, Perkins continues the saga he began in 2004’s Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. The information Perkins presents isn’t secret so much as it is cumulatively terrifying.

“The United States exemplified democracy and justice for about two hundred years,” he writes “Since the end of World War II, however, our position as leader has eroded, the model we presented to the world undermined by a corporatocracy hell-bent on empire building.” 

Perkins might be fuzzy on things that happened before WWII — slavery, treaty violations and massacres of Native peoples or the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, say — but he has some good points. More precisely, he has good examples and tales from Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa to back himself up. Read The Boat and weep; read Secret History and fear — and then read the last chapters and join Perkins and millions of others in fighting for change.     


Nam Le reads from The Boat at 7:30 pm Thursday, 6/5, at Powell’s on Hawthorne in Portland. John Perkins discusses The Secret History of American Empire at 7 pm  Thursday 6/5 at Barnes & Noble.