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Book Review

Tales of the World's 'Unchosen' Misfits

FAKE HOUSE And Other Stories by Linh Dinh; Seven Stories Press $23.95, 192 pages

October 02, 2000|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Born in Saigon in 1963, Linh Dinh came to the United States in 1975, just as South Vietnam was being taken over by the North. An artist and writer whose poems, stories, translations and reviews have appeared in numerous journals, Dinh is also the editor of "Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction From Vietnam" (1996). In 1998, he returned to live in the city of his birth, now known as Ho Chi Minh City.

Dedicated "To the Unchosen," the 22 stories in "Fake House" focus on the misfits, the down-and-out, the marginalized. Some are men, some women, some American, some Vietnamese, but all, in one way or another, are "unchosen." Among their number are convicts, alcoholics, prostitutes, Asian girls advertising as mail-order brides. The first 11 stories are set in America, the second 11 in postwar Vietnam. Characters from one story occasionally turn up in another: This is a world, of sorts.

The overall result might be described as a mixed bag: The stories are uneven not merely because some are not as good as others but also because even the best are not entirely satisfactory. In the title story, for instance, Dinh's attempt at writing in the voice of a thickheaded businessman is heavy-handed: "Josh is my only sibling. He is a year older than me. He is my older brother." Elsewhere, one feels that some material (self-mutilation, possible castration, murder) does not go beyond shock effect.

Yet, there are moments of insight and originality. In one story, we hear from a young woman who considers herself "The Ugliest Girl": "A beautiful face will be forgiven for all inanities and cruelties spewing from its mouth--even vomit from a beautiful face is a turn-on--but an ugly face will be held accountable for even the smallest indiscretion." In "Fritz Glatzman," a middle-aged lawyer contemplates a nude go-go dancer: " . . . any relationship I can have with [her] . . . is bound to be unbalanced, asymmetrical. . . . To start with, she's naked, and I'm not. While she could only read my face, I could read her entire body. Because clothing serves to isolate the face, a naked woman . . . surrenders her right . . . to frame her own face."

Then, there's Susan, a 19-year-old virgin who's found herself "A Cultured Boy" but is unprepared for his shallowness: "I had to make him understand that there is a correspondence between touch and feeling, between gesture and emotion. . . . Each touch must be warranted: an index finger on the lips, a head nestled between the breasts. . . . It was no small event when he placed his palm on my hip, when he rubbed his knuckles against my cheek. . . . But he was impervious to the implications of these nuances." In Dinh's world, Susan's disappointment portends serious consequences.

A certain grim humor animates "Two Intellectuals," which features a pair of cellmates. The narrator, who's killed eight people, is a reformed soul, sorry to have caused so much suffering: "When I was a young man, during my hippie days, we used to say, 'It's all good!' But it's not all good. One has to renounce certain aspects of oneself to find oneself." His cellmate, however, led a respectable life, then one day succumbed to an urge to stab his wife. Far from regretting it, he embraces his crime as his destiny. "What I object to," the serial killer dryly remarks, "is the fact that he sees his crime as a vehicle to self-discovery."

The postwar Vietnam of the book's second half is dispiriting. Village girls dream of marrying rich men from abroad. City boys lust after designer labels. A disabled North Vietnamese veteran feels "the new generation has very little tolerance for . . . whatever . . . is unglamorous, maimed, unphotogenic. All reminders of the war embarrass them. . . . It was a huge aberration, they've decided." Throwing itself with varying success into the mouths of dissimilar characters, Dinh's is, nonetheless, an interesting new voice.

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