Vu Tran’s Vegas-set ‘Dragonfish’ mostly pleases, sometimes perplexes

Chuck Twardy

Three stars

Dragonfish: A Novel By Vu Tran, $27.

Early in Vu Tran’s Dragonfish, we learn about the title creature. Ushered against his will into a subterranean room that has been expensively excavated through layers of caliche and engulfed by an aquarium, narrator Robert Ruen learns that the Asian arowana is a rare, endangered fish that his captor’s father sells for $10,000.

“They’re supposed to bring good luck, keep evil away, bring the family together. Asians always love believing in that,” says Jonathan Van Nguyen, a dapper fellow in his late 20s whose father, Sonny, owns the restaurant above them in Las Vegas’ Chinatown. The younger Van Nguyen delivers a painful warning to Ruen to stay out of his father’s affairs, which he manages more than his father knows, then sets him free.

If you expect a Bond-like tale of international intrigue to spin from this peculiar encounter—the room is reached through a painting that doubles as a door, naturally—you’ll be disappointed. The action remains resolutely in Las Vegas, which of course offers plenty of ersatz global settings, but none of them figure in Tran’s story. Neither does the dragonfish, beyond this early encounter, although fishing in general is key. A later scene takes place at Sunset Park Pond, where Jonathan fishes while outlining for Ruen, captive a second time, what Ruen must do for him: help find Sonny’s missing wife, also Ruen’s ex.

Ruen calls her Suzy, his first girlfriend’s name, although her real name is Hong. The missing spouse is the novel’s other narrator, by way of a journal whose italicized contents fill two long sections of the book. In it, Hong relates her story for her daughter, Mai, whom she abandoned when she was 5 years old. Mother and daughter fled Vietnam after its fall to the Communists and the loss of Mai’s father, a South Vietnamese officer who had been “re-educated” to death. On the same crowded refugee boat are Sonny, whose Vietnamese name is Son, and Jonathan. Son’s wife leaps overboard, thinking that Jonathan has drowned. Later, Hong and Son meet and become lovers at an island refugee camp, where Son and Jonathan fish for food.

Son is a Vietnamese name (the name of Tran’s father, according to the author’s acknowledgements) but it’s hard to ignore its English meaning. Son, Jonathan and Ruen wrestle with paternal influences. Son’s father’s timidity propels Son into cruelty, which Jonathan both embraces and eschews, and Ruen’s father was a vicious wife-beater. From his parents’ tortured marriage the flawed narrator concludes that being in love is “often no different than being afraid.”

There are Christian implications, too. Events unfold at Christmastime. Hong is devoutly Catholic and so desperately in need of some sort of redemption that Ruen once finds her late at night, gobbling communion hosts in her church. Oddly, she finds it in Son, to whom she returns after her marriage with Ruen falls apart. And he’s a fisherman, although that’s about the end of the Christ parallels, except for an episode near the end of the novel that would be a spoiler to discuss.

For this is, after all, a mystery, written more with the air of a midcentury gumshoe tale than that of a spy thriller. It’s set circa 2000, with the end of the Vietnam War a quarter century earlier still fresh in memory and Las Vegas transitioning from family-friendly to what-happens-here—although, again, the novel makes little of either topic. In fact, instead of pursuing the thread of irony that Jonathan notes in the dragonfish scene, or the dichotomy of reality and fantasy that Ruen ponders, the novel churns familiar Vegas tropes about hope and despair.

“What might have been is a vast and depthless ocean that surrounds the tiny island of what actually happened, what was actually possible,” Hong writes in her journal. Although much of it is carefully observed and cleverly written, Dragonfish swims around that island of regret.

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