Viet Thanh Nguyen's debut novel is wildly ambitious. As it opens, our unnamed narrator is sitting with the general of the South Vietnamese army, figuring out who they can get out of the country as Saigon falls. The narrator, a captain, is also a spy working for the Communists. His instructions are to follow the general to the U.S. and continue reporting from there to his friend, also a Communist, who remains in Vietnam. So off to the U.S. he goes, after a harrowing escape while under fire at the airport.
What follows is a look at the life of a spy, who is also, by Vietnamese culture, a "half breed": his mother was a poor Vietnamese woman, his father a Frenchman. As such, he has no status nor expectations, and would be considered fortunate to have a decent life working for the general. In America, he's seen by some as a menace--evil Vietnamese!--and others as an interesting artifact from a world Americans don't understand. So there's a great deal of duality/double lives going on here.
Actually, there's a great deal of a lot of things going on here. There's romance. There's class status among Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. There's loss of home and family and the nostalgia for that. There's a lot about clueless Americans (all of it completely on point, sadly), and the latter is demonstrated in a wildly over the top adventure in which our hapless narrator gets brought onto a foreign film set to help a Hollywood star director produce a great Vietnam War movie (any resemblance to Apocalypse Now must be quite intentional). There's double-dealing and spying and coping with the gray-tipping-into-black things he must do to maintain his cover.
There are parts that are hilarious, and parts that are mesmerizing. But unfortunately, those parts are in the minority, and there are too many parts that drag on and on--especially the last quarter of the book, which crawls to a halt. There are weird set pieces that feel like darlings the author couldn't kill, including--I kid you not--one in which the narrator remembers having a sexual encounter with a dead squid his mother was going to cook for dinner, then having to eat it later. Entertaining? Yes. Necessary to the story? Not in any way that I could see.
I started out caring about the narrator and interested in all that he had going on, but by the end, I was just tired. A sparer, tighter book would have been riveting.