Viet_Thanh_Nguyen_The_Sympathizer

The guest on the latest episode of the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast is Viet Thanh Nguyen . His debut novel, The Sympathizer, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016. It is available now from Grove Press.

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“I don’t have to tell you the contradiction,” Rik says about the phallic name of the place as we walk in.

Pho Hung, a Vietnamese restaurant in Chinatown, Las Vegas, has three statues and a waterfall just inside the front door. We slip past the sounds of dripping water and find a twelve-foot-tall fertility-inspired centerpiece covered in fruits and vegetables. It towers above rows of tables and chairs.

We sit near the end of a table and stare at the giant plastic garden before some butterflies across the room catch our attention. They’re on a wall in what looks like a framed poster. It’s at least six feet across. “Are those butterflies real?” I ask.

Rik jumps up and heads to the glass-encased frame. “It is!” he says. His voice is naturally dramatic. He’s a DJ. But he could easily be a radio actor, or the softly evil voice of the strawberry-scented bear in Toy Story 3.

We haven’t even ordered yet. But I walk over too and see that it isn’t a poster. Inside the glass frame, dozens of butterflies, every color imaginable, lie frozen in time. The center column is filled with moths. Not little moths, but huge moths. Gargantuan moths. The kind that could terrify a kid on a jungle night if one were to flitter in front of the moon.

“Let me tell you about an iridescent blue butterfly I saw at a Darwin exhibit on the Berkeley campus last year,” I say. I search the rows for a blue glowing butterfly. “It was neon come to life. It was a sky. Or an ocean. Never seen anything like it.”

Outside, Chinatown in Las Vegas is booming. Spring Mountain Road is filled with endless Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese restaurants. Strip malls are decked out in Asian décor. There’s a tattoo parlor next to an Asian food restaurant next to a Boba shop. You can get an apple slushy, grab some goodies from a Korean grocery store, then swing by the Asia-themed Starbucks on your way to a casino with spinning slot videos based on the movie Jaws.

Everywhere you can get a foot massage. $19 for thirty minutes. Their “open” signs flash. Their neon signs beckon. Near a donut shop there’s a handwritten note on an empty storefront. At least one strip mall owner is sick of the local foot fetish. NO FOOT MASSAGE. NO HAIR SALON.

Rik’s been in Las Vegas ten years now. His hair is graying like mine on the sides. He has a beard but no moustache. He’s soft spoken; a big guy. He wears a GUINNESS shirt a lot.

He’s from Mendota in California’s Great Central Valley. It’s further north than Bakersfield, a town that now boasts nearly 10,000 inhabitants and nearly 40-percent unemployment. That was his childhood playland—the cantaloupe center of the world—until he was in his early teens.

Before Vegas, his family moved from Mendota and lived in Fresno, once home to Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist/novelist William Saroyan. Many people, myself included, have been taught to believe that John Steinbeck was the big Central California writer because he lived in the Salinas Valley and wrote Grapes of Wrath. But Saroyan preceded him as king. He wrote the short tale, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, (1934), which was taken from the 19th Century song of the same name. He also wrote The Human Comedy, (1943) and won a Pulitzer Prize for the 1939 play, The Time of Your Life, among many other writings.

*     *     *     *     *

Rik’s eyes search the restaurant from behind dark-rimmed glasses. “Have I told you my William Saroyan story?” he asks.

Then, suddenly, the conversation shifts.  We get caught in small talk. It’s several minutes before we get back on the topic.

“I told Bonnie my Saroyan story,” he says. He’s talking about our mutual mentor, Bonnie Hearn Hill. She just released Taurus Eyes (2010), the second book in the Star Crossed Series. He gets on the subject of her husband, Larry Hill, whose short story collection, Saroyan’s Bookee was published in 2008 on Mark Arax’ imprint. Arax recently wrote the widely popular nonfiction work West of the West: Dreamers, Believers, Builders and Killers in the Golden State (2009). But that’s another story.

Larry, who is in his late 70s, is a wonderful writer. Don’t believe me? He recently won the 2010 Bellevue Literary Review Prize for Fiction for his work, Cocido, which I hear is online, but I have been having a hell of a time finding it.

I tell Rik I met Larry in an art gallery in Fresno. I explain that the entire room was filled with his paintings. A masterful abstract expressionist painter, Hill’s eye for beauty ties a peculiar modernism to lost generations of abstract artists. Splashes of color you might see in your mind but would never think to recreate, Hill can put to canvas.

Meet him and he’s quiet at first. But you immediately get the sense that he’s lived. I mean really lived. I’ve seen it in his paintings and in his eyes. “He’s an inner artist,” Bonnie says later in a telephone call.

She tells me she’s the opposite. An outer artist. Gabby. (Like me at times. I guess I capture a little of both worlds.)  She tells me that around fifty years ago Larry Hill was at Jackson Jones Liquor Store in Fresno. She said he and Saroyan reached for a bottle of wine at the same time. A magical moment. “He worshipped Saroyan,” Bonnie said.

At Pho Hung, Rik recommends Hill’s story “Tranquillity” that’s set in the Central Valley town of the same name. He points out the strangeness of the two L’s. I later get a glimpse of the book and start thumbing through a few pages. But Rik winds up taking it back.

I later write to Larry Hill and ask him if he’ll tell me his William Saroyan story. Apparently, he and Saroyan were both avid gamblers (as was my dad), and they shared the same bookee. But more important was Hill’s adoration for Saroyan, and the strange liquor store experience.

He writes back within a few days:

Hi, Nick.

It’s 1963. I’ve quit my teaching job ($4,000 a year) at Fresno High to try working full time as a commercial artist. Got a new home (Trend Homes by Spano, $12,000). Decide my birthday party needs a bottle of red wine (about a half gallon of Gallo Chianti, the kind in a husk basket because I think it will look good with my books on their plank and cinderblock book case.

I drive a couple blocks to Jackson Jones Liquor on the corner of Shields and West, park an old gray Chevy sedan I’ve named Moby, walk in, head straight for the wine display. Wow. Only one left down there on the bottom shelf. Just about to grab its dusty neck, when a huge hairy-knuckled hand beats me to it. Really it’s a tie, but I give in.

“All yours,” I say, “Mr. Saroyan.” For I’m looking straight into the fire and ashes of the legend’s face. First encounter with the man I’ve chased, spotted and missed in the Mecca Pool Hall, Blackstone Billiards, Ryan’s Arena, The Fresno Public Library. At The Big Fresno Fair, the Stockton, Pleasanton and Del Mar Race Tracks. Duke’s Place, Janofsky’s Pub, The Old Fresno, Duggan’s Yack and Snack, Darby’s Tavern, the Greyhound Bus Terminal, the Bike Shop on Shields and Wishon, The Fresno YMCA (the day Abe Davidian was shot to death down the block), and twice in San Francisco on what proved to be bogus  leads.

He’s off to another display. No smile or thank you. Off before I can thank him for his body of work. Off before I can share a story about one of the bookies we have shared. One who’d cheated us. One we busted. One like Papa Joe who forgave us the juice when we were busted. God knows I’ve been told the stories. But, man, it would be great to hear one from him.

No such luck. I choose another bottle of wine. Unadorned. Probably not even a cork. Fuck it. I don’t care any more.

“Can I see some I.D.?”

It’s a new girl behind the counter, checking me out.

“You’re kidding, right?” I spread my wallet out in front of her. “I’m thirty-one, for Christ’s sake.” I hold the proof up for her and a few gawking patrons. “Five. Five. Thirty-two.”

From one of the people in line waiting behind me. Big voice. Like thunder. “Cinco de Mayo.”

I find him easy. “Right,” I say, “Cinco de Mayo, Mr. Saroyan.”

“Happy birthday,” he says.

Driving Moby back home, I must have been thinking how I would tell about meeting the Big One someday. I must have put a hundred strokes to it, giving it a little English here, a little follow-through there. Making sure I didn’t scratch. No worry though. I can pass for younger than I am. Saroyan’s so strong he’s scary. No one can kill us.

Larry

*     *     *     *     *

The food arrives. In front of Rik there’s a bowl of steaming seafood soup. I get eggrolls and a plate of lemon grass chicken and vegetables. The eggrolls are already sectioned. Each bite melts on my tongue. It’s my first time in a Vietnamese restaurant. This is my communion. I half expect butterflies to shatter glass, flit about the room, land on my glasses or Rik’s.

“When I was in seventh grade, a teacher gave me a book Saroyan wrote,” he says. “Every two weeks the library would get new books and I would flip through them finding everything Saroyan. I was obsessed with him. It wasn’t normal.” He says his teacher told him years later in a chance meeting that she wasn’t in class on a few occasions because she went to hear Saroyan give talks. She felt bad for not inviting him and carried the guilt for years.

Rik speaks slowly. The words roll off his tongue, bounce into the desert restaurant unveiling a mind’s eye cinematic view of California’s Great Central Valley. Mendota version. Dusty town. Smell of cantaloupes in the air. I can see the dirty purple sunsets along imaginary agri-rows. Melons and vineyards; Rik wandering down Mendota’s sidewalks. Old men riding bikes downtown. Baptist churches with their big-haired polyester preachers of the late 1970s. Every farm town and city is an imaginary dust devil away from the next.

He talks about Fresno next. I imagine drive-thru dairies. Milk in bottles and factory smokestacks. Grape vineyards surrounding a city like barbed wire.

“When I moved to Fresno I lived downtown,” Rik says. “It was 1981. I was sixteen. I had a 1965 Chevy Stepside that my dad got me. Then Saroyan died. I was devastated.”

I half expect Rik to choke up.

He goes on. He picks at his soup. It wafts in swirls of steam like spirit-filled incense. “I knew where Saroyan lived. After he died I drove past his home.  What was amazing was there were boxes of trash outside of Saroyan’s house along the street. All of a sudden I found myself parked next to the curb throwing the boxes into the back of my pick-up.

“And it wasn’t just any trash. It was every Christmas card, postcard and letter ever written to Saroyan,” Rik says. “There were articles too. I took them home and over the next few months I locked myself in my room and read every single one.”

I’m in shock. When I think about this moment in our conversation I imagine my jaw unhinging, bouncing on the table, then onto the floor and up the fertility statue. It gets lost among plastic tomatoes. “What did you do with it all?” I ask.

“I began giving away Saroyan’s postcards. All of it. I gave them to teachers, to friends, to anyone I knew who loved Saroyan.”

“Imagine what the family would do if they had that back. I can’t believe anyone would throw all of that away,” I say.

“Really said something about that family to me at the time,” Rik whispers. His eyes squint nearly shut.

“Do you have any left?”

“Maybe in a box. Probably not. You just lose stuff over the years,” he says.

A few days later I’m in his garage. I see piles of boxes. I want to tear through them, unearth an archive of lost literary history. But I just pass through. The door behind me closes. In my mind I claw at the wood to get in.