Review: “Dragonfish” by Vu Tran

Dragonfish. Vu Tran. Norton. 304 pages. $26.95.
Dragonfish. Vu Tran. Norton. 304 pages. $26.95.

“America, Mr. Robert, is not the melting pot you Americans like to say it is,” a Southeast Asian Michael Corleone lectures the white hero of Dragonfish. “It’s oil and water. Things get stirred, sure, they eventually separate and settle, and the like things go back to each other.”

This anti-assimilationist seam runs through the fabric of Vu Tran’s debut novel, a disjointed and uninvolving exploration of the immigrant experience packaged in a by-the-numbers mystery.

The story takes place in the closing days of 2000. Robert Ruen, Tran’s narrator, is an Oakland cop still pining for his ex-Vietnamese wife, an enigmatic woman named Hong (he ethnocentrically calls her Suzy). After she disappears, her new husband, Sonny Van Nguyen, a shady businessman in Las Vegas, “persuades” Robert to come to Sin City and assist with the investigation.

Hong never really makes an appearance; we learn about her secondhand from other characters. But occasionally, she is permitted to have her say. Tran provides excerpts from a journal she kept, in which she detailed her escape from Vietnam in the 1970s with her daughter, whom she later abandoned.

Hong’s beautiful, evocative prose radiates deeply felt reality; it is a refreshing (and all too brief) respite from Robert’s hardboiled tone, which is as trite and predictable as the plot it advances. But if you’re going to imitate the noir masters, you’d better have an eye for details that expose your setting’s wormy underside.

Los Angeles will always be in Chandler’s debt, and Las Vegas should mail a tip chip to Tran. Other writers have captured the garish pretense of this Mafia-made mirage. Tran’s contribution is to show us Vegas Chinatown, away from the Strip, home of many casino dealers, “a theme park like the rest of the city.” And then there are the casinos themselves, with smoke and mirrors everywhere but no windows or clocks to let you know if it is day or night: “No sense of progression outside of what you gain or what you lose.”

Unfortunately, just when you are settling down to enjoy the tour, Tran pulls us away in order to satisfy another genre convention. One wishes he had continued to inhabit Hong’s voice and put aside the tough talk, fight scenes, aquarium full of illegal exotic fish (hence the title), Paranormal Activity-like videos, polite thugs with giant henchman (a 7-foot Mexican) and suitcases full of money. We have driven down this nasty road before.

Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.