Vincent Lam wins wager with first novel

Harriet Zaidman, Winnipeg Free Press
April 26, 2012

W When Toronto's Vincent Lam won the Giller Prize in 2006 for his debut collection of short stories, Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, the bets were on to see if he would achieve sophomore success.

Literary gamblers had to be patient. In the intervening years Lam co-wrote a guide to influenza pandemics and contributed a biography of Tommy Douglas to the Penguin Canada Extraordinary Canadians series.

But the wait has ended for this long-promised tale about a high-rolling headmaster of an English school in Saigon during the Vietnam War. Lam's compelling family saga has believable characters manoeuvring in situations beyond their control, making desperate decisions in the hope of surviving the geo-political battles waging around them.

It's hard to imagine that a drunken, lecherous gambler could be a sympathetic character, but Percival Chen has a soft heart for his only child, a son. Dai Jai's rebellious attitude attracts the notice of local authorities, always wary of the loyalty of the local Chinese population.

When Dai Jai is drafted into the South Vietnamese army, Percy borrows heavily at usurious rates so he can secret the teenager away to supposed safety in Percy's home country, China.

Debt and loneliness pull the divorced Percy back to the mahjong table, where he wins money and a young woman whom he begins to truly love. The war expands, the number of Americans in Saigon multiply and the need for English translators increases.

Percy prospers and becomes a father again, doting on his new son while he worries about Dai Jai, whose letters home formulaically and repetitively praise China but lack information or any expression of his personality.

Lam's writing details the nitty gritty of relationships complicated by past experiences, grudges and divided loyalties. Percy's constant second-guessing, his addiction to gambling and the high stakes he wagers compound his problems.

The story is a suspenseful page turner, with the fate of many lives resting on the roll of the dice. The smallest reminder or comment plunges Percy back into memory, providing a history of Chinese migration to Vietnam, the brutal Japanese occupation during the Second World War and the American presence and attitudes toward the Vietnamese.

Percy's excesses, the corrupt South Vietnamese authorities and the emasculated American military are a graphic contrast to the resolve of the Viet Cong when it launches the Tet Offensive in January 1968.

Lam paints a disturbing picture through Percy's opulent, alcohol-fogged New Year's banquet while Saigon burns outside and the turning point of the war begins.

"He poured another glass. 'Tell me, the food that is grown here is so tasty -- do you think it is the blood that makes the earth so full of flavour?' "

Lam drew his inspiration for his novel from his grandfather, by Lam's admission a gambler and womanizer. The grandfather first appeared in Bloodletting, when the young medical graduate (based on Lam) is sent to Australia to report to the family when the old man finally dies.

Lam's family immigrated to Canada from Vietnam because of the U.S. defeat. While he always wanted to be a writer, his parents stressed he find a job to pay the bills. He still works as an emergency physician in Toronto.

Percy inhabits the unpredictable world of bribes, connections, moles and informers. He struggles between his selfish nature and his conscience to make moral choices amid the fury unleashed by the American domino theory and the confusion of the Cultural Revolution.

A sweeping story, The Headmaster's Wager was the first novel Lam wrote, which has now found its final form.

The wait has proven worthwhile. Vincent Lam has turned out a winning wager.

Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg.

© Winnipeg Free Press 2012