At the grand opening of the liquor store, the General shakes hands with well-wishers, chatting and smiling non-stop. Thirty old colleagues, followers, soldiers, and friends are also in attendance. The narrator hasn’t seen these men since they were in the refugee camps on Guam. He mingles with “these vanquished soldiers” and reports their gossip to the Parisian aunt. They all have humble jobs now—managing a pizza parlor, working as janitors, short-order cooks, mechanics, and delivery people. Their children, “afflicted” by the West, talk back to them, and their wives have been forced to work.
The General’s reunion with his former soldiers is bittersweet because they have all been demoted in social status. Moving to the U.S. has required them to start over in a country that knows nothing of their military reputations and doesn’t care. Worse, they feel that the new country requires a compromise of traditional values. The next generation, raised in the U.S., seems poised to abandon those values altogether.
The narrator commiserates with the crapulent major about how unhappy he is in Los Angeles. When the narrator suggests moving, the major balks. He doesn’t know what he’d do for food; the best Chinese restaurants are in his neighborhood. The narrator asks if the major can show him where the good Chinese food is. The major delightedly agrees. The narrator feels guilty for accusing such a harmless man. The narrator makes his way back to the General, who’s standing by Madame. He’s being interviewed by a man that the narrator doesn’t recognize at first. It’s Son Do, or Sonny, as he’s nicknamed.
As in other instances in the novel, food becomes a way to connect with people and culture. The crapulent major’s enthusiasm for life, expressed through his love for food and drink, causes the narrator to feel guilty about causing the man’s inevitable death. This sense of tragedy is contrasted with the General’s success in opening his store—a symbol of his success in the U.S.
The narrator last saw Sonny in 1969, during the narrator’s final year in the U.S. They shake hands. Madame tells the narrator that Sonny is interviewing them for his newspaper. Sonny offers the narrator his business card. While offering Sonny a bottle of Chardonnay, the General recalls how journalists in Vietnam were given “the gift of free room and board, albeit in jail, for speaking a little too much truth to power.” The narrator takes a picture of Sonny, with the General and Madame flanking him.
The General’s comment foreshadows his change of heart regarding Sonny and the General’s perception of Sonny’s Vietnamese-language newspaper. He’s in favor of Sonny’s work when it serves the General’s business interests, but Sonny quickly falls out of favor with him when the newspaper doesn’t support the continuation of the war.
The crapulent major currently works as a gas station attendant in Monterey Park, while his wife sews in a sweatshop. When they’re together, she nags him about being in California, where they are poorer than they were before. However, he has good news: his wife got pregnant with twins while they were at the refugee camp. He’s happy that they’re American citizens. Their American names are Spinach and Broccoli, in honor of Popeye and a woman on television who always reminded people to eat their broccoli. The names are assurances that the twins will be strong and healthy so that they can survive in America. The major mentions that he needs to go on a diet. He works at the gas station from ten in the morning and leaves at eight. He works seven days per week and can walk to work from his house. He finds the job easy and likes it. He offers to give the narrator some free gas in exchange for helping him escape Vietnam.
The crapulent major is not only a decent man but, unlike the other refugees in the narrator’s company, he seems to appreciate the bounty that the U.S. can offer him and his family. He is willing to work hard to make a good life for himself and his family in his new country. He has faith, too, in America’s promises. The major also exhibits a willingness to change his life, due to his wish to lose weight. The major’s embrace of change contrasts with Bon and the General’s fixation on a war that is over. The narrator is still going to kill the major to protect himself, though, no matter the major’s noble character.
The narrator goes home and watches Bon clean and oil the .38 Special. They watch Dr. Richard Hedd being interviewed on television about Cambodia. The narrator asks, what if the major isn’t a spy? If they kill the wrong man, it’s murder. Bon sips his beer and says that the General knows things they don’t. Also, it isn’t a killing; it’s a wartime assassination. Sometimes, innocent people get killed in wars. Bon says that it’s only murder if you know they’re innocent. Even then, it’s a tragedy, not a crime.
The narrator attempts to engage Bon on the issue to test his moral conscience. He learns that Bon’s faith in himself as a soldier, capable of carrying out orders, gives him no qualms about killing the major. Even if the major is innocent, Bon thinks that his murder is justified in the context of a war, in which a perceived threat is enough to justify killing.
The narrator asks Bon if he was happy when the General charged him with this task. Bon picks up the .38, which looks natural in his hand. He insists that a man needs purpose. Before he fell in love with Linh, he wanted revenge for his father’s murder at the hands of Communists. Then, Linh became more important and he didn’t get revenge. He didn’t get over his feeling of betraying his father until Duc was born. His sense of wonder over his son made Bon think that his father must have felt the same way about him. His life seemed insignificant in relation to Duc’s. With his son gone, Bon feels no sense of purpose. He feels like a nobody, and the only way not to be a nobody is either to kill himself or someone else. Bon asks if the narrator understands.
No longer a son or a husband or a father, Bon’s only sense of purpose comes from being a soldier. Moreover, this is the only area of his life that has been consistent. His life as a husband and father didn’t last and he failed to keep his promise to avenge his father. It’s possible that he feels that he must keep his oath as a soldier or else his life will lack meaning altogether. Without a sense of purpose, Bon sees no point in continuing to live.
The narrator understands, and he’s stunned; it’s the longest speech he’s ever heard from Bon—the only man the narrator has ever met who is equally moved by both love and the prospect of killing. The narrator wants to persuade the General that the crapulent major isn’t a spy, but he knows it’s too late. The only thing left for the narrator to do is to create a plausible story about how the major’s death is neither his fault nor the General’s. It would be a typical American tragedy, starring “a hapless refugee.”
The narrator is also responsible for perpetuating stories that contribute to the positive image of the General, while secretly telling Man stories about how the refugees are faring in the U.S. Many people rely on the narrator’s accounts of events, but his conflicting allegiances make him a possibly unreliable storyteller.
The next Saturday night, the narrator goes to dinner at the home of Professor Hammer and his boyfriend, Stan. Over dinner, they talk about bebop, the nineteenth-century novel, the Dodgers, and America’s upcoming bicentennial. Professor Hammer recalls the narrator’s senior thesis on Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American and thinks it’s the best undergraduate thesis he’s ever read. The narrator smiles demurely and says thanks. Claude snorts, saying that he never cared for the book. He finds the Vietnamese girl in it implausible. The character is quiet, servile, and meek, while the Vietnamese women in his experience are anything but.
The meeting with the professor reminds the narrator of the relatively easy-going life that he had as a student. With Professor Hammer, he’s able to indulge in his love for Western culture. The narrator’s interest in the Greene novel, which is about the fall of French colonialism in Vietnam and the beginning of American involvement in the region, is an indication of how keen he has been in understanding his political enemies.
The narrator and Claude leave Professor Hammer’s house near midnight and smoke farewell cigarettes on the sidewalk. The narrator discusses his feelings of guilt about the impending murder of the crapulent major. Claude insists that the major probably has some blood on his hands. Everyone is innocent on one level and guilty on another. That’s the nature of Original Sin.
In Claude’s estimation, if the major isn’t guilty of being a Communist spy, he’s probably guilty of something else, given his line of work. Claude isn’t justifying the major’s death, but he’s not declaring the narrator wrong for killing him to redeem his country.
The next evening, the narrator scouts the crapulent major. He parks his car half a block from the gas station and waits until 8:00 PM, when the major will emerge and begin his walk home. The narrator follows the major for six Sundays. On the Saturday before their fateful encounter with him, Bon and the narrator drive to Chinatown. After lunch, they browse the shops, where “all manner of Orientalia” is sold. They buy UCLA sweatshirts and caps. That evening, after dark, the narrator and Bon go out once more, each with a screwdriver. They tour the neighborhood until they reach an apartment complex with a carport like the one at the major’s residence. Bon removes the front license plate from a car, while the narrator busies himself with the one at the rear. They then go home. Bon falls asleep immediately that night, but the narrator can’t.
The narrator and Bon scout the major as if they were conducting a mission to hunt and kill a foreign enemy. Ironically, they go to Chinatown to buy UCLA regalia, hoping that the disguises will help them blend in to the neighborhood as students. In the killing of the major and, later, during Sonny’s murder, clothing will play an important role. No longer assigned a uniform, the narrator and Bon create their own, usually using clothes that they believe will be helpful in making them look more American. The narrator has trouble sleeping, feeling a guilt that Bon clearly doesn’t experience.
The visit to Chinatown reminds the narrator of a past incident in Cholon, involving the arrest of a Communist suspect, a tax collector. The crapulent major’s men entered the tax collector’s shop and pushed past his wife to reach the storeroom, where there was a lever that opened a secret door. Inside, there were gamblers shooting craps and playing cards. On seeing the policemen charge into the room, the gamblers dispersed. The narrator was surprised to see the tax collector, after having tipped Man off about the raid. The tax collector spent a week in the interrogation center, being beaten. The man’s wife brought a bribe equivalent to a year’s salary to ensure her husband’s release. The major gave the narrator his share, and the narrator donated the money to the revolution, handing it to Man at the basilica. The point of writing this part of the confession to the Commandant is to prove Claude’s point that the crapulent major, too, was sinful. The Vietnamese regard extortion as an average offense, however.
The narrator tells himself this story about the major as though he’s trying to find some justification for the decent man’s eventual murder. He thinks of how the tax collector also had a wife who had to endure her husband’s suffering until she came up with enough money to buy his freedom from the major, who imprisoned him. Moreover, the tax collector was one of the narrator’s comrades. By killing the major, he reasons that he would be getting revenge for the tax collector. The narrator overlooks his own role in allowing the tax collector to be imprisoned and beaten to avoid compromising himself. At the same time, he also sees himself as an operator within an intrinsically corrupt mechanism.
The next evening, the narrator and Bon park down the street from the gas station at 7:30 PM, wearing the UCLA sweatshirts and caps. The narrator’s car has the stolen license plates affixed to it. Fireworks explode in the distance. Bon is tense while they wait for the crapulent major. At eight, the major leaves the gas station. They start the car and drive to his apartment complex. They wait eight minutes for the major’s arrival. Bon takes the gun out of the glove compartment and opens the cylinder to check the bullets. He clicks the cylinder back into place and lays the gun on a red velour pillow on his lap. He puts on a pair of latex gloves and removes his sneakers. The narrator gets out of the car and goes to the other end of the carport.
The fireworks explode in the distance because it’s Independence Day. The sound of the firecrackers foreshadows the sounds of bullets firing. Independence Day has significance in relation to Bon’s belief that he is killing the major to help free his country from the Communists. It also has significance in relation to the narrator’s belief that he’s killing the major to help maintain Communist rule and to avenge his wronged comrades.
Bon walks in his socked feet to his position, between the two cars nearest to the path. He kneels down and keeps his head beneath the windows. The narrator holds a plastic bag with a yellow happy face and the words THANK YOU! on them. There are firecrackers and oranges inside, which he bought in Chinatown. He imagines his mother asking him if he’s sure about what he’s doing. The narrator thinks to himself that it’s too late to turn back. As the crapulent major approaches, the narrator greets him and lifts the bag, offering it as a Fourth of July present. The major is puzzled, wondering if Americans give gifts on the Fourth of July. He looks into the bag. Bon walks up behind him. Instead of pulling the trigger, Bon greets the major. When the major turns around, Bon shoots him in the head. The bullet makes a third eye. The narrator picks up the bag, which is dotted with blood.
The plastic bag with the yellow happy face seems like part of the ruse to disarm the major. The symbol, which signifies affability and generosity, reinforces the notion that the narrator, whom the major has never had any reason to perceive as a threat, is there on a friendly visit. Also, in Chinese culture, oranges symbolize wealth and good luck and are commonly shared on Chinese New Year. Fireworks are also displayed on Chinese New Year, as they are on the Fourth of July in America. The “third eye” is a symbol of wisdom in Eastern culture. In this instance, though, it’s a manifestation of the narrator’s guilt.
At home, the narrator takes off his shoes, also dotted with blood. He wipes them and then calls the General. He tells him that “it’s done.” The General says, “Good,” and the narrator hangs up. The narrator goes back into the living room with two glasses and a bottle of rye. In the living room, Bon empties the contents of the crapulent major’s wallet. Inside, there’s a color photo of the major’s twins at a few weeks of age. When the narrator hands Bon a glass of rye, he sees the old blood oath scar on his hand. Bon toasts to the major. They then eat three of the oranges from the shopping bag and go to bed. When the narrator closes his eyes, he shudders at what he sees: “the crapulent major’s third eye, weeping because of what it could see about [him].”
The number three shows up in numerous ways in this scene: the narrator and Bon eat three oranges—symbols of good fortune—and the narrator dreams of the major’s “third eye.” The number signifies the completion of a story with a beginning, middle, and end. The oranges are an ironic metaphor because the major was a victim of ill-fortune, whereas the fruit usually symbolizes good luck. The narrator feels great guilt for what he has done, like his immorality has been truly seen by the major’s “third eye.”