The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in Vietnam and raised in the United States. He teaches English and American studies at the University of Southern California. He is the author of an academic book, Race and Resistance, and many short stories that have appeared in American literary magazines.

Karl Marlantes, the author of the Vietnam War novel Matterhorn, tells us that Viet Than Nguyen’s new novel The Sympathizer (Grove Atlantic, 284 pp., $26), is “easy to read, wry, ironic, wise and captivating.” I agree.

The book’s narrator, the unidentified “sympathizer”of the title, grabbed me with his voice and attitude. Plus, if he hadn’t already gotten my attention, his ironic comment abut “the awfulness of Jane Fonda,” won me over. I loved the irony of a Vietnamese-American saying that. And it was funny—which this book is.

Funny in a very dark manner. If a book about the Vietnam War is funny, it would have to be in a dark manner.

The main character’s voice, wit, and point-of-view make the book a total delight, especially if you are interested in the Vietnam War. There is a witty turn of phrase on just about every page. That includes this observation about American excess: “a sheet cake big enough to sleep on.” The last Vietnam War novel I read that was this funny was Catch-22, which some misguided folks say is about World War II.

There is a brilliant section in which the protagonist is an adviser for a big- budget Vietnam War film in the Philippines, a movie that resembles Apocalypse Now in virtually every respect. The delineation of the megalomaniac director is a non-stop hoot, as well as a critique of all that is wrong with America when things “Oriental” are confronted and portrayed artistically.

Viet Thanh Nguyen

The author’s American pop culture references are all spot on—except for his choice of dwelling on Nancy Sinatra’s very small success with the hit song “Bang, Bang, My Baby Shot Me Down.”  That song was written by Sonny Bono and sung by Cher (and by Nancy Sinatra) during the Vietnam War, but Nancy’s version didn’t get much attention till much later. She did get plenty of attention during the war for her 1966 song, “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.”

The author pays tribute to Sgt Rock, dusty cans of Spam, Tarzan, dog eating, the Phoenix Program, hippies, Sophia Loren, John Wayne, Bob Hope, Agent Orange, getting outta Dodge, Alice in Wonderland, and many phrases and themes associated with the Vietnam War. He also comes up with a bunch of new ones: arthritic turtles, the Chinese acrobat of time, skunked by history, just to pick three good ones.

For those who have been waiting for the great Vietnamese American Vietnam War novel, this is it. More to the point: This is a great American Vietnam War novel.

I enjoyed every page of it. It is the last word (I hope) on the horrors of the Vietnamese re-education camps that our allies were sentenced to when we left them swinging in the wind. If the author wanted me to feel overwhelming guilt, he succeeded mightily.

The author’s website is http://vietnguyen.info

—David Willson

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