This is a remarkable and satisfying collection by a talented author with a keen sense of irony. Through his elegantly descriptive prose, modern-day Thailand is brought to chaotic life in a series of stories that are charming, insightful, touching and astute.
The place is fierce. The author’s language is fierce: “The dilapidated playground. The pond with its perpetual scrim of scum. The mangy strays sleeping haphazardly in the streets. The porridge and plantain vendors.” In varied scenes of love, betrayal and abandonment, every aspect of the country is revealed, the poverty, the lush terrain, the greedy and careless farangs, the spirited Thai people, Cambodian immigrants, streets teeming with faces, some curious, many defeated.
The first story, “Farangs”, begins innocently enough, with a young man regularly enamored of female tourists in their bikinis, especially Americans, destined to have his heart broken over and over with only his pet pig, Clint Eastwood, for consolation. Then, in “At the Café Lovely,” an eleven-year-old boy admires his older brother, their nighttime activities revealing the dangerous habits of huffers in back alleys, where igniting paint thinner can envelop an unwitting face in blue flames.
In “Sightseeing”, the title story, a son and his mother take a last opportunity to share a short vacation, knowing that soon their lives will change irrevocably. “Draft Day” portrays the ultimate betrayal of childhood friendship by a lie of omission as two young men appear for the annual draft lottery.
With each story, the emotional terrain intensifies, the characters struggling for dignity in a harsh world. Two boys make friends with a gold-toothed Cambodian girl in “Priscilla the Cambodian,” while ramshackle immigrant shanties fill in every available space, trashing the property values of local residents. Later, when the enclave is torched, the Cambodians gather their few belongings, prepared to move on: “Surviving each day seemed a victory and a wonder to them.”
In “Don’t Let Me Die in This Place,” the author exposes the fragile bonds of family love, as a wheelchair-bound grandfather moves to Thailand to live with his son, “foreign” daughter-in-law, and two “mongrel” grandchildren whom the curmudgeon comes to love absolutely. The final tale, “Cockfighter”, delivers the coup d’grace as a complicated story of dominance, pride and dishonor. A stubborn father seeks to hold his own at the local cockfights, brought low by a violent thug, ultimately triumphing: “What kind of world we live in, what men are capable of.”
Each intricate drama explores the differences of a changing environment, savoring the small moments of human interaction, the author an able and astute guide through the pitfalls and pleasures of modern Thailand.