There may be braver writers on our chaotic new continent, there may be more beautiful prose on Borders Books’ memoir shelf. But it’s not likely. Andrew Lam delivers gold in Perfume Dreams. His muse may be unkind, his music may make me cry like an abandoned baby boy — but oh my, this man can talk story. In fewer than 150 pages, he tells his bright Yank story, he tells his father’s burdened Viet story, even his motherland’s tortured history. And like all profound story tellers, his voice illumes a dark place — "that treacherous space," as he calls it "between the traditional ‘We’ and the ambitious American ‘I.’"
In Perfume Dreams Mr. Lam tells seventeen true immigrant tales from that, at once, painful and promising place only newcomers can honestly occupy. It is a treacherous space you simply can’t fake, and no one could conceivably wish on any loved one, not for a moment — not like those lost Viet boys Mr. Lam writes about in his essay "Love, Money, Prison, Sin, Revenge."
In "Love, Money, Prison, Sin, Revenge" three brothers and their best bud take 41 dazed hostages and three innocent lives during a botched Good Guys electronic store caper in an awful Sacramento suburban mall, in the spring of 1991. The gunned guys demand $4 million, four bulletproof vests, 40 pieces of 1,000-year-old ginseng, and a chopper to Southeast Asia so they can finish the fight their fathers failed. All of it is aired over live-feed TV, all over insatiably sunny California. The cops kill three of the guys and a jury gives the oldest kid consecutive life sentences.
The Good Guys essay represents an occasional ugly broadcast of one of those dark moments, among so many best kept in ethnic enclaves, away from all our shrill American dreaming. It’s better we stick to the smiling Model Minority façade.
Mr. Lam’s scenes are familiar, his characters are family. All of them are cozy and crazy and so private. "Stop telling family secrets," Andrew’s mother yells in "Notes of a Warrior’s Son." "Americans don’t need to know anything about us."
The American son answers her obediently. He says he’ll stop, but knows he can’t.
Mr. Lam knows he simply will not shut up. He cannot shut down. He has to talk. He speaks in a language, a tone, and rhythm, somewhere between Old Imperial Hue’s hushed Perfume River and brash San Francisco’s Golden Gate to the Golden State. Readers sense that he must articulate or risk becoming another anachronistic branch — odd and ultimately irrelevant — of an Old World family tree. His is the thrill of an exile’s existential craft: make meaning or acquiesce to the mall. Mr. Lam is up to the task.
Andrew Lam struggles. He doubts. He rejoices. He struggles some more.
He writes from both sides of the deep blue between the Little Saigons of Southern California and the big Saigon of the former Republic of South Viet Nam (T.P. Ho Chi Minh, if you insist). To be fair, Mr. Lam even writes out of Hanoi. He takes Western journalism way beyond its fig-leafy professional margins of safety. Between here and there, between his dignified father’s sharp sorrow and his gummy generation’s ambivalent present, Mr. Lam reports as if there is in fact no elevated news bureau to write from. Between those "treacherous" places, objectivity is nowhere to be found — lucky for us new Americans. Andrew Lam elbows free a little space for us. For us immigrants, exiles, and imposters, all alike.
Andrew Lam is an editor for the Pacific News Service, and an award-winning syndicated writer. His essays and articles have been broadcast on NPR and printed, among other publications, in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Chicago Tribune. The author’s father is the honorable General of the former Army of the Republic of Vietnam.