The Demon Who Peddled Longing

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Nam, the nineteen-year-old hero of Khanh Ha’s latest novel, THE DEMON WHO PEDDLED LONGING (Underground Voices), is aptly named. He could stand as a symbol of his country’s tragic history: battered and suffering, but tough, capable and resolute as well. Or, to paraphrase Hemingway, defeated but not destroyed.
Ha, who was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for his 2010 debut novel, FLESH, sets his compelling new novel in the heartland of Viet Nam: the delta with its swift-running rivers, vast rice fields and jungles. Everything here is lush, tangled, teeming with life and danger. The rains can become torrential, flooding the fields with black, poisonous water, the fishing hamlets often come under attack by Khmer Rouge pirates.
Nearly every character in Ha’s book has been maimed in some way by the long, brutal wars that Viet Nam has fought in recent years. Orphans abound, rape victims and widows as well; many of the males have lost a limb or even their eyesight. But not even blindness can crush the defiant spirit of an aged fisherman we meet in THE DEMON; going on instinct and memory, he manages to find his way to the river’s edge at midnight and dig clams for a living.
Nam himself is one of those orphans, a young man with a mission, to find the twin brothers who robbed, raped and murdered his sister. With all the cunning of a fox, the tenacity of a vigilante, he pursues these killers relentlessly, desperate for revenge, thirsty for blood. His own blood is spilled more than once during the course of his dogged quest; he almost dies of a shark-bite when he goes to the aid of those aboard a storm-battered fishing boat.

This good deed leads to the offer of a job: handyman and helper to a local “Great Master,” a rich warlord who controls a sizable chunk of the delta. Here Ha’s tale turns gothic: Mr Big is paralyzed, confined to a wheelchair, but he has a young beautiful wife, Li, whom he purchased from an impoverished family. Jealous and impotent as Mr Big is, he allows Li to spend time with Nam but for cynical, manipulative reasons.
Everything that occurs in THE DEMON WHO PEDDLED LONGING
jumps off the page, thanks to Ha’s vivid and poetic prose, and to his deep, intimate knowledge of the Vietnamese people. Ha not only knows how they live and work, but what they love, fear, despise and hold dear. Without a shred of sentimentality or falsity, he paints a memorable portrait of Viet Nam, a country with a life-force that seemingly will never be extinguished. or