Vincent Lam’s “The Headmaster’s Wager”

Vincent Lam is a busy man. He is an emergency physician, which I can imagine leaves you little free time. Despite this, Lam is a writer. And I am told by many websites punctuated by a mysterious .ca suffix that he is a literary A-lister in his native Canada, due in large part to his award-winning 2006 debut short story collection Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures.

To that list of accomplishments he can add a novel, The Headmaster’s Wager, a long (so very, very long) tale of deceit, politics, and identity set in wartime Saigon. At the center of it all is Percival Chen (born Chen Pie Sou), a Chinese immigrant proud of his heritage and disdainful of his Vietnamese surroundings. Chen is the headmaster of a English academy in Saigon—useful to the Americans—and to his knowledge well-connected and shrewd enough to live a life beyond the privilege afforded to a regular school administrator.

But when the Vietnamese government mandates—by way of a rather intimidating letter delivered by government officials—that all schools must teach Vietnamese, including the English academy, the fallout tests both Chen’s contacts and his resolve. To make matters worse, Chen’s son, Dai Jai, made a powerful statement in school about the new policy (Dai Jai is eager to earn his father’s respect by way of casually dismissing Vietnamese culture and proclaiming the superiority of his own heritage, natch), and is soon smuggled to China (just in time for the Cultural Revolution!).

Even sending Dai Jai to his possible demise is difficult for Chen financially, so the latter spends much of Wager trying to secure the means for his son’s transit in various unsavory ways.

Chen is a dud protagonist, his casual racism and womanizing ways making him seem unlikable and worst of all simple; he seems to be little more than a composite of various flaws. I don’t know if Lam’s intent for this construct of a an- rather than protagonist mired in conflict to be complex for the reader, but it isn’t. Rather than making it more interesting or making the reader choose between diverging instincts, it seems to sap most of the momentum from the plot. Not that one must have a horse in the race to sit in the stands, but it doesn’t hurt?

(Chen also has an affair with a half-Vietnamese woman during Wager, something he forbade his son from engaging in. This is a strange take on the star-crossed lovers, given what’s propelling Chen forward is his usual womanizing ways and what’s holding him back is his own repugnant prejudices. It’s not complex, just grotesque.)

Wager is also held back its voice. The third person is detached and disinterested and too conventional given the novel’s scope and seeming ambition. If Chen is to be a real crackerjack asshole, why not use first person and let him loose? It always strikes me that being in the mind of an asshole is better than sitting at dinner with him.

Still, there are moments where Lam’s talent shines through. He has a gift for really good dialogue and (at times) pacing. Chen’s most important ally, his Vietnamese colleague/friend Mak, hangs over a scene in the early going, his impending arrival anticipated/begged by Chen so much that the reader is dizzied by what may happen. Who IS this powerful man? Of course, when Mak arrives and is efficiently useful to Chen rather than some bureaucratic savant (the context here being in the actual text, sorry), it’s quite funny. Other humorous moments break up the slog, showing Lam’s arsenal.

In reading about The Headmaster’s Wager, I’ve come to learn about Lam’s inspiration: his own grandfather. Much of what he’s said makes it seem as though this story has been within him his whole life, yearning to break free. And now it has. Though Wager didn’t grab me, it showed that Lam’s ambition and talent gives him the sort of promise that should excite.

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