Vu Tran: Dragonfish

dragonfishThis startling novel by newcomer Vu Tran is a fascinating blend of old school hard-boiled writing and sensitive psychological examination, while still maintaining a distance and sense of mystery about the central characters. I think Tran’s closest writing relative might be Patricia Highsmith, which is high praise; it’s well earned by this terrific novel.

It’s the story of Officer Robert Ruen and his troubled relationship with his ex-wife, Suzy. The novel kicks off with a memory: Vietnamese refugees aboard a boat heading for safety, and also with the intrusion into Officer Robert’s home by two young Vietnamese thugs, who are looking for Suzy. Tran introduces story strands and details but only slowly reveals their meaning as the reader is drawn further and further into his story, one that utilizes Suzy as the virtual McGuffin that keeps the plot humming.

In bits and pieces we discover Suzy’s background and her real name—Hong. Suzy is a name Robert made up for her. It seems ridiculously American, and called to my mind all kinds of Asian stereotypes, especially, of course, The World of Suzy Wong. Tran seems interested not in stereotypes, but in perceptions based on stereotypes. Robert expected Suzy/Hong to behave in a certain way—she is Asian—and it prevents him from actually understanding her, despite the fact that Suzy often met the expectations he had.

The main gist of the story is the search for Suzy by Robert, as a proxy for Suzy’s new, thuggish Vegas gambler husband, Sonny. As the backstories of the characters unspool, including some absolutely gripping portions of narrative concerning the refugees on boats and their eventual stopping-off point, Malaysia, the pieces of the story begin to assemble like a puzzle, coming into focus as another piece is added. It’s another bit of perception and understanding on the part of the reader.

A mix of American and Vietnamese perceptions and stereotypes and the terrible unhappiness of the missing Suzy/Hong permeates the story, making the reader desperate to discover where and who she is. While this is a crime novel, the mystery part of the story concerns Suzy and why she behaves as she does, a question never perfectly answered. Robert’s quest ends unexpectedly and in a satisfying way, as far as the plot is concerned. As far as the characters are concerned, there are questions left unanswered, but they left me thinking as I closed the book. This is an astonishing, and very promising, first novel.