I was initially drawn to Phuc Tran's new memoir about growing up as the son of Vietnamese refugees because of the playfulness of its title: “Sigh, Gone.“
As it turns out, Tran's loosey-goosey writing style is all over the place in emotional tone and subject — something I might ordinarily find annoying, but kind of appreciate right now. In this confused and scary time, a story about displacement that itself is so scrambled feels just right to me.
In 1975, Tran was a toddler when he and his extended family fled the fall of Saigon. They spent time in a refugee camp and, then, thanks to outreach by the Lutheran church, they were relocated to the town of Carlisle in South Central Pennsylvania. There, they took on their new collective identity as the Vietnamese family in town. As Tran writes, "Random strangers had saved us. And random strangers were cruel to us, too."
Among many other things, Tran's family quickly learned to order their occasional treat of a McDonald's meal via the drive-through lane. Going inside the restaurant to eat could attract racist remarks, or the more benign, but intense, attention from Vietnam Vets, haunted by the legacy of that war: "That was my inheritance. The anxiety of being stared at," Tran writes.
Tran's mother found work at a local apple orchard, while his father, a lawyer in South Vietnam, was hired at the tire plant, where Tran recalls, "he came home from the factory shifts reeking of freshly extruded tires ... [and] burnt rubber." And Tran himself? Well, with a first name like "Phuc," you can imagine what life was like for him once he hit middle school.
In his loose, often funny, and rambling way, Tran talks a lot about the reassuring influence of books: specifically, about his fierce indebtedness to the company of Hester Prynne in “The Scarlet Letter,” Franz Kafka's Gregor Samsa, and other "misfit" characters.
But the surprise element in Tran's coming-of-age story is punk rock. As much as he was shaped by the classics, Tran tells us, he was also saved by The Sex Pistols. Randomly taking up skateboarding in eighth grade leads Tran into the sweaty outlaw community of local skatepunks.
Because Tran doesn't know much about the music on the cassettes his new friends are passing around, he makes an emergency trip to the Carlisle public library to bone up on punk from The Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll. But that comic passage kickflips into violence a few pages on. Tran recalls bringing home a report card on which he received a "U" for "Unsatisfactory" in gym. That one grade keeps him off the honor roll and his father goes berserk, lunging at him with scissors, snapping his vinyl records in half, shredding his posters, and "fillet[ing]" his precious leather jacket.
The scene itself is familiar — a hardworking immigrant father angered by a poor showing on a child's report card — but the raw intensity of it is what's shocking, especially given the comic tone of so much of this memoir. For weeks after, Tran couch surfs or sleeps in friend's closets.
Eventually, Tran moves back home and the incident is blanketed over in silence. But it's time to move on. Tran looks around and sees his older friends either joining the army or dead-ending in Carlisle and realizes that punk rock has its limits as a means of escape.
That moment of clarity leads Tran back even more seriously to books and to — of all things — the discovery of a secondhand copy of “The Lifetime Reading Plan,” a 1960 book by the mid-20th century intellectual Clifton Fadiman. In it, Fadiman recommends the 104 books that he deemed essential to the education of any civilized person in the Western World. Entranced by what he regards as Fadiman's tough "punk" attitude toward reading, Tran immerses himself in William Faulkner, Henry James and “The History of the Peloponnesian War.”
And, well, you know the rest, because the saga of the anonymous kid who transports himself through reading has been told over and over again. A scholarship to college awaits, and Tran becomes a high school Latin teacher. The end.
Except, these days, Tran is no longer teaching and is instead a renowned tattoo artist. In actuality and on the pages of this memoir, Tran's life goes off-road, defies reading plans or most other kinds of plans. Which makes Sigh, Gone a congenial read for our chaotic time.
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