I’m a sucker for a story set in Southeast Asia and I definitely liked this one by T Cooper (apparently the lack of a period after the T is significant – it’s certainly conspicuously absent in The New Yorker). The narrator is living in Kep, on the Cambodian coast, in a tiny house just steps from the sea. He is punishing himself for killing his son, which he did accidentally, and that death led to conflict with his wife which led to the end of their marriage and to his fleeing the medical world where he was a resident. (It’s not a completely fresh set up, to be sure; I did a review last year of And the Word Was by Bruce Bauman, which begins with similar facts.) He takes up with a beautiful young Cambodian woman who has a son and the narrator is able to use his medical knowledge to help the boy. But his sense of right and wrong are skewed and he doesn’t really know what life is like here. He literally finds himself swimming in blood when he tries to apply his own ethics, and in the end he hears from the girl the story of how her father watched his first family killed by the Khmer Rouge – more suffering that even in his grief he can’t fully comprehend. So not only does this story hang together well – it begins crisply and ends at the right moment – it’s a really nice example of story-telling. It’s straightforward, it moves, it’s exotic, there’s plenty of tension. Right now I’d say this is my top New Yorker story for the year.
August 20, 2007: “Swimming” by T Cooper