In his 2006 Giller Prize–winning collection of linked short stories, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, Vincent Lam introduced a cameo character, Percival Chen, the tuxedo-clad headmaster of a private English academy in Saigon, sleeping off a hangover after a debauched night of gambling and whoring. In Lam’s first novel, The Headmaster’s Wager, Chen reappears as the fully fleshed-out protagonist, inspired by the author’s larger-than-life (and large-as-fiction) Chinese grandfather.
As a teenager growing up in Ottawa, Lam absorbed dramatic family stories of the expatriate Chinese community in Saigon during the Vietnam War, and dreamt of writing a book. A decade ago, still only in his twenties, he started a first draft only to realize he was not emotionally ready; after shifting to short stories—drawn on his often harrowing, real-life experiences as an emergency room physician at Toronto’s East General Hospital—he shot to sudden literary prominence.
The suspended, family-infused novel has now arrived fully realized; if some of the literati may have envied a precocious 32-year-old doctor enjoying the good fortune of a Giller win with his first stab at fiction, they will turn an even darker shade of green encountering the extraordinary sophistication and maturity of The Headmaster’s Wager. The science half of his brain aside, the man is a born storyteller.
The multi-layered plot hinges on the passing down from generation to generation of a family good luck charm—a small, rough lump of coal—that serves as a perpetual reminder that “one never knows the form wealth takes, or how luck arrives.” Having left his Chinese village in search of “mountains of gold,” Chen’s father, an opium-addicted rice merchant, longs to return to his homeland with his newfound wealth, but never does, enacting the timeless immigrant dilemma: is it better to live poor at home or rich abroad? The terrifying Japanese occupation of Hong Kong in 1941 propels the next generation, the young Chen, to the Chinese quarter in Saigon with his haughty new wife, Cecilia. She derides him as a country bumpkin, yet prefers to escape under the protection of an arranged marriage rather than risk rape and starvation at the hands of the Japanese. After sex with her husband—“even a peasant is good for the animal things”—she unleashes a torrent of insults.
In Saigon, Chen makes his fortune—the word vibrates with double meaning—as the headmaster of an elite English academy. Greased by his bribery of local officials with whom he carouses, Chen’s fat profits are made by educating translators for the American military bent on their futile mission to win Vietnamese hearts and minds. Trouble starts when Chen is pressured to include the Vietnamese language on a curriculum that contains no politics or history, a reflection of his tragic flaw—political naiveté.
Out of blind patriotism rather than communist sympathies, Chen is eager to return home to support the Great Leap Forward, but to maintain his high life he must remain in Vietnam. He deeply loves his son, Dai Jai (born in 1949 just as Mao seized power)—perhaps too much: he wants to control Dai Jai’s romantic choices even as he indulges his own promiscuity. At the same time, Dai Jai must tacitly learn how to play the game: “Son, if you wish to do something, it is often best to give the appearance that you have done nothing at all.”
As the Vietnam War peaks in the late 1960s, the teenaged Dai Jai, politically bold in the face of his father’s discretion, is arrested as a pro-Chinese dissident. In a chilling scene of the insidious but devastating effects of slow-dripping water torture—“finally, with one important drop, the boy’s head tears open like paper”—Dai Jai’s tormenting policeman mocks ambiguity as worthless, in this the most ambiguous of worlds. Chen scrambles to raise his son’s ransom of $50,000 in games of mah-jong. Concurrently, Dai Jai dreams of flying over his father’s gold mountain; even as his father nods with approval, enjoining the son to surpass the father, Chen falls Icarus-like from the sky, “impaled by gold shards.”
In another game of mah-jong, Chen wins Jacqueline, a beautiful young courtesan of mixed French-Vietnamese blood, forced to sell herself after the death of her mother. “The Americans are not so good at hiding their appetites, which makes them easier to read,” she tells him. “You Chinese are no more virtuous, just more circumspect.” The ancient Chinese game of skill and chance, banned by Mao as corrupt, stands as an apt metaphor for what drives Chen: the tiles, stolen from other players, are then “melded” into a winning hand. He believes the intensity of his own desire can bring luck; in the adrenalized feeling of risking and losing everything lies “a tantalizing, terrifying freedom.” This is a story not just of melded nationalities, but melded everything—politics, sex, violence, drugs, money, luck, food, race, class, family.
The Tet Offensive of January 1968, when the Viet Cong smuggled weapons into Saigon under the noses of the Americans and unleashed squads of assassins, forms a high point in the action. A knot of coincidences, lucky and unlucky, at first strains the credulity of the reader, but then we think, “No, this is strange enough to be true.” The remainder of the plot, riddled with sharply ironic twists and turns we can only find in real life, cannot be revealed without spoiling the pleasures of surprise—and shock. Suffice it to say that, consumed by his appetites, Chen plays out his fate as an unwitting pawn, oblivious to the machinations enveloping him; private friends turn into public enemies and vice versa.
With the deft use of dreams and flashbacks, Lam fills in the family back-story without losing the forward momentum of the gripping political tale that echoes the intrigues of Dr. Zhivago and Graham Greene. Arresting poetic images of pleasure and pain, of sex and death, are stitched together with surgical precision: “He filled his mouth with her, lest he say something that might frighten them both”; a few pages later, we encounter a Buddhist monk setting himself alight, his “mouth a black hole within his melting face.” Repelling successive waves of Chinese, Japanese, French and American invaders, the Vietnamese people endure and survive as subversive, indomitable benders-with-the-wind; “the land itself bleeds.”
An alchemist who has turned rough familial coal into literary gold (and with any luck, cinematic gold), Lam has forged a testament to the immutable power of the filial bond, mapping the conscious and unconscious transmission of gifts and curses of a single family, and therefore all families. Paradoxically, in finding great wealth, we lose our true homes: “Once you have left a place, you can never go back … The place of your memories will have vanished, and you will have new memories. They will make the old ones feel different … the gold lump doesn’t even matter, except for what it helps you to remember.”
With his worldly-wise, irony-rich piece of ancestor worship, Vincent Lam has successfully emerged from the emotional emergency room of his family history. Time will tell if he chooses to emulate such former physicians as Anton Chekhov, Arthur Conan Doyle and Somerset Maugham and surrender to full-time bloodletting, also known as writing. Whatever path his healing gifts take, literary or medical, I predict good fortune—perhaps even miracles. The Headmaster’s Wager is a tough act to follow, but I like the man’s chances.