Dragonfish by Vu Tran
If you ever read this, you should know that everything I write is necessary to explain what I later did. You are a woman now, and you will understand that I write this not as your mother but as a woman too.
Robert Ruen is an Oakland Police Officer who arrives home to his one bedroom apartment one night and realizes someone else has been there., There is no sign of forced entry and nothing is disturbed, but there is something in the air – a smell, a sense of a former presence. The sense continues for several nights until finally he comes home to find two men with guns waiting for him.
None of us is exactly surprised by this, we already know Ruen has some sort of a past – he has demoted himself from detective back to patrol cop for reasons that are never explained to us. His past, however, will never be our real concern – Ruen and we are sent looking for his ex-wife, Suzy or Hong – a Vietnamese refugee prone to depression and wild behavior who divorced Ruen some years earlier and married a fellow Vietnamese refugee named Sonny. Sonny is a violent gangster from Las Vegas who is now recruiting Ruen to find a missing Suzy. It is their past Ruen will learn he has become part of.
Tran has absorbed the tropes of noir fiction quite effectively. His detective is not actually a detective (anymore). The pursuit of Suzy will take us into a complex and morally ambiguous past that will force Ruen to face his own moral ambiguity – to test the code he seems to have lived by until now. That past will involve the legacy of the Vietnam War and the horrors refugees faced surviving communist Vietnam and the escape to Australia and America.
That is the real subject of this novel – that legacy, its affect on individuals who survived it, and how the next generation deals with that legacy. Both Sonny and Hong have children and their relationship with their children is bound up with their need for survival. In this novel the familiar stereotype that Asian parents live for their children, that this generation sacrifices everything for the next generation, is at least partially upended: Sonny and Hong need their children to validate their own survival and ask more from the next generation than they sacrifice for it. Tran is using the violent and ambiguous world of detective fiction to examine the complex emotional and moral ambiguity that plays out in those relationships all over America, but without the violence.
Robert Ruen is somewhat limited messenger for this purpose. He knows and cares little for Vietnamese culture or history, and is constantly surprised by the power of the past over the people he meets. We know little of his past (and what we do know feels as if it is there to set up future novels) and never see him in a morally upright light. As a result, when the darkness of the world he has entered starts to cast a shadow upon him, we do not have a strong sense of contrast. Certainly he does things he did not imagine doing before, but we do not know enough about his past for this to fall to seem tragic. However the fact that these events impact him at all separates this novel from much of American detective fictions. Ruen is, like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe or Easy Rawlins, a lone wolf. But unlike those detectives he seems less than fully committed to solitude. Relationships are not extraneous to him, he is just not very good at them. This adds to his moral ambiguity, but leaves that ambiguity… ambiguous.
There is a realism about that however – while Ruen checks off some of the marks of a noir hero, he does not stop being human. This works well in the very realistic portrait of a Las Vegas with a strong immigrant community. That realism is also reinforced by the depiction of violence in the novel. There is plenty of it, but it is all limited. With the exception of one minor character – a giant Mexican thug who exists solely to intimidate Ruen and who seems to have walked in off the set of a James Bond movie – these are not men who revel in violence. They accept its necessity in their world, but seemed determined to limit it. They seem to understand its impact in a way that is refreshing in this genre.