Reviews for The Sympathizer

by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Kirkus
Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

A closely written novel of after-the-war Vietnam, when all that was solid melted into air.As Graham Greene and Robert Stone have taught us, on the streets of Saigon, nothing is as it seems. The racist suppositions of the empires of old helped shape a culture of subterfuge; not for nothing does the hero of Nguyen's (English and American Studies/Univ. of Southern Calif.) debut give a small disquisition on the meaning of being Eurasian or Amerasian ("a small nation could be founded from the tropical offspring of the American GI"), and not for nothing does a book meaningfully called Asian Communism and the Oriental Mode of Destruction play a part in the proceedings. Nguyen's protagonist tells us from the very first, in a call-me-Ishmael moment, that he's a mole: "I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces." Two faces, two races, neither wholly trusted. Our hero is attached to the command of a no-nonsense South Vietnamese general who's airlifted out at the fall of Saigon in 1975, protected by dewy Americans "with not a hint of a needle track in the crooks of their arms or a whiff of marijuana in their pressed, jungle-free fatigues"; whisked stateside, where the protagonist once spent time absorbing Americanness, the general is at the center of a potent community of exiles whom the protagonist is charged with spying onthough it turns out he's as much observed as observer. Think Alan Furst meets Elmore Leonard, and you'll capture Nguyen at his most surreal, our hero attempting to impress upon a Hollywood hopeful that American and Vietnamese screams sound different: "I was on my first assignment as a lieutenant," he recalls, "and could not figure out a way to save the man from my captain wrapping a strand of rusted barbed wire around his throat, the necklace tight enough so that each time he swallowed, the wire tickled his Adam's apple." Both chilling and funny, and a worthy addition to the library of first-rate novels about the Vietnam War. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Publishers Weekly
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

This astonishing first novel has at its core a lively, wry first-person narrator called the Captain, and his two school friends Bon and Man, as they navigate the fall of Saigon and the establishment of the Communist regime in Vietnam in 1975. The Captain is a half-Vietnamese double agent; he reports to his Communist minder Man who, unbeknownst to Bon, is a Republican assassin. The Captain and Bon make it on to one of the harrowing last flights out of Saigon as the city is overtaken by the Viet Cong. They travel with the Captain's superior, the General, and his family, although Bon's own wife and son are shot making their escape. The Vietnamese exiles settle uncomfortably in an America they believe has abandoned their country, as they are reduced to new roles as janitors, short-order cooks, and deliverymen. The General opens a liquor store, then a restaurant (in which his proud wife cooks the best pho outside Vietnam) as a front to raise money for a counter rebellion. In order to protect his identity as a spy, the Captain is forced to incriminate others, and as lines of loyalty and commitment blur, his values are compromised until they are worthless. Nguyen's novel enlivens debate about history and human nature, and his narrator has a poignant, often mirthful voice. Agent: Nat Sobel, Sobel Weber. (Apr.) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


Library Journal
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Starred Review. Written as a postwar confessional, this novel begins with its nameless protagonist, a highly placed young aide to a general in the South Vietnamese army, recalling how he finalized the details of escape before the fall of Saigon. But our hero is a double agent, a communist sympathizer who will continue to feed information to the North even after he makes the harrowing escape with his loyalist friend Bon and the general's family on the last plane out, and becomes part of the Vietnamese refugee community in Southern California. Breathtakingly cynical, the novel has its hilarious moments; the reader will especially enjoy Nguyen's take on 1970s American life. To maintain his cover, our hero must become entangled in the general's underground resistance group, which plots a return to Vietnam through Cambodia, and the tale turns seriously dark. VERDICT Ultimately a meditation on war, political movements, America's imperialist role, the CIA, torture, loyalty, and one's personal identity, this is a powerful, thought-provoking work. It's hard to believe this effort, one of the best recent novels to cover the Vietnamese conflict from an Asian perspective, is a debut. This is right up there with Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke. [See Prepub Alert, 10/27/14.]-Reba Leiding, emeritus, James Madison Univ. Lib., Harrisonburg, VA (c) Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

*Starred Review* Adept in the merciless art of interrogation, the nameless spy who narrates Nguyen's dark novel knows how to pry answers from the unwilling. Unexpectedly, however, this Vietnamese communist sympathizer finds himself being tortured by the very revolutionary zealots he has helped make victorious in Saigon. He responds to this torture by extending an intense self-interrogation already underway before his incarceration. The narrator thus plumbs his singular double-mindedness by reliving his turbulent life as the bastard son of a French priest and a devout Asian mother. Haunted by a faith he no longer accepts, insecure in the communist ideology he has embraced, the spy sweeps a vision sharpened by disillusionment across the tangled individual psyches of those close to him a friend, a lover, a comrade and into the warped motives of the imperialists and ideologues governing the world he must navigate. In an antiheroic trajectory that takes him from Vietnam during the war to the U.S. and then back, Nguyen's cross-grained protagonist exposes the hidden costs in both countries of America's tragic Asian misadventure. Nguyen's probing literary art illuminates how Americans failed in their political and military attempt to remake Vietnam but then succeeded spectacularly in shrouding their failure in Hollywood distortions. Compelling and profoundly unsettling.--Christensen, Bryce Copyright 2015 Booklist

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