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Anthony Veasna So’s witty and sharply expressed short stories are set in the Central Valley — the “valley of dust and pollen and California smog,” where the options for Cambodian American immigrant fathers, ejected from the stories of their lives, boil down this way: “They fixed cars, sold donuts or got on welfare.”
These families have bought the American dream but, as another immigrant, the Serbian American poet Charles Simic, once wrote, it “just hadn’t been delivered yet.”
The parents and grandparents in So’s “Afterparties,” at least, have a minimum of gravitas. They survived the Khmer Rouge genocide, which is no joke, unless they want it to be. One man comments, in the manner of Henny Youngman, that he’s suffered two oppressive regimes, Pol Pot’s and his wife’s.
The new generation isn’t sure where it fits in. Its members clown about being “off-brand Asians with dark skin.” One young woman says, “Forty years ago our parents survived Pol Pot, and now, what the holy [expletive] are we even doing? Obsessing over wedding favors? Wasting hundreds of dollars on getting our hair done?”
[ Read our profile of Anthony Veasna So. ]
Everyone in So’s stories has a splintered sense of self. Communion arrives, when it does, at the table. “Cambos like us retained our Camboness mostly through our food,” one young man says. “Egg rolls stirring up portals back to the homeland.”
At big get-togethers, everyone gathers around the “lemongrass beef sticks, glass noodles stir-fried with bean curd and ground pork, red-hot papaya salad drenched in fish sauce, and also, of course, the requisite and huge pot of steaming white rice.”
(Where do doughnuts fit in? If you’re not aware of Cambodian American doughnut culture — I hadn’t been — I heartily recommend Alice Gu’s recent documentary “The Donut King.”)
A sense of melancholy lingers over these characters’ lives, as it does over this entire project. The author, who was 28, died of a drug overdose in December. He was gregarious, tattooed, queer: a big personality. He radiates in much the same way on the page.
So left a small, promising body of work behind: this book and a second, to be published next year, which will include portions of an unfinished novel and some nonfiction writing. Four or five of the stories in “Afterparties” are good enough that the reader senses that he had a vast amount of soul and spirit in his account, and that he’d only just begun to draw from it.
One of these stories is about a mother and her two young daughters, who run a 24-hour doughnut shop. When a Cambodian man begins to linger there late at night, they fear he’s been sent from the old country to collect a debt. Another is about a badminton coach, who also runs a grocery store and is vastly too eager to relive past glories.
Some deal with being gay and Cambodian — culturally, a double whammy. “It’s hard enough for people like us, my mom would say,” one character comments. He’s more than self-aware. About his own trajectory, and his strained relationship with his father, he comments: “All very cliché, in that gay sob story kind of way.”
My favorite story in “Afterparties” may be “The Shop,” which is a Cambodian American Robert Altman film waiting to happen. It’s about a struggling auto body shop. The narrator’s father hires all his immigrant friends, who are reeling from loss, even though he can’t afford them.
The story comes to involve a stolen car, monks (“The monks love Sting,” is a stray comment), hemorrhoids and a crazed, overdressed doctor’s wife, who whacks the young, gay narrator’s head with a rolled-up magazine while crying, “Why did you not become a doctor?”
Almost as good is “We Would’ve Been Princes!,” about a big wedding at the Dragon Palace Restaurant, “which had been packed to the gills with 300 California Valley Cambos.”
So writes: “The younger crowd knew better than to get sloshed in front of their 70-year-old devout Buddhist grandparents.” (In tiny parts of their minds, they fear their grandparents are right about reincarnation.) They wait for the afterparty.
Two characters in “We Would’ve Been Princes!” are named Marlon and Bond. This is because, it’s explained — “the logic’s so Cambodian it hurts” — if you name your kids after the first movies you saw after immigrating, “American dream achieved!”
The author is at his best when he has a lot of plates spinning. A few of the quieter stories struggle to leave an impression. He deftly shuffles some of the same characters in and out of stories; sometimes decades have passed.
So’s writing about gay sex is memorable because it isn’t romanticized. A typical comment is: “I felt like bottoming. And didn’t feel like being a hypocrite by letting a white predator colonize my rectum.”
Sometimes the sex is boring; sometimes it really hurts; sometimes his narrators are going through the motions. Sometimes they continue to sleep with an annoying guy because his apartment has great wi-fi.
Only sometimes is the sex, as in Garth Greenwell’s writing, incandescent. But when it is, well — that makes up for a lot of off nights.
So’s stories reimagine and reanimate the Central Valley, in the way that the polyglot stories in Bryan Washington’s collection “Lot” reimagined Houston and Ocean Vuong’s novel “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” allowed us to see Hartford in a fresh light.
It’s always been true, and it’s always been a blessing: When you are poor and on the outside in America, one of the few things they can’t stop you from doing is writing.