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It's hard to forget while reading LIGHTNING ON THE SUN that its author, Robert Bingham, died of heroin overdose last November, 1999, a few months before this first novel came out. Chapter one, you're neck deep into drugs, a deal in the making; meet the soul of the American middle class gone wayward, the "Merchant Prince," Asher. A character mired in spiritual malaise and heavy substance abuse. He knows he's all but lost and he thinks a final deal might get him out of Cambodia and back home to the real world where he'll find his way to go straight and make a life. He's been stuck within his own and Cambodia's languor for several years, ever since quitting his job restoring Khmer monuments for UNESCO. We find him ensnared in his own dark web.

The book opens at sunset in Phnom Penh, a city of jungle heat and monsoon rains; the capitol of a shaky democracy surrounded by feuding power brokers and the roving incendiary remains of the Khmer Rouge. A mecca for weapon sales and drug deals, headed by a king who spends most of his time on the French Riviera, a corrupt situation poised to blow into civil war between the royalists and their FUNCINPEC party and Hun Sen's CCP, Cambodian People's party; neither seeming to care too much if anarchy wins. They are united in one thing: a racial hatred for their next-door neighbors, the Vietnamese. Phnom Penh, a nether city where police or vagrant militia or whomever stop people at random demanding money, brandishing weapons and shooting at will. A town covered by foreign journalists as if it were a political sports arena. Washing over all of this, like a tonal under painting, is the somatic haze of dope. No place for a directionless sort like Asher to try and heal himself.

You get the scent of a death wish early. The first when Asher fails to follow his own instincts. He is on his way to score the kilos that he thinks will buy him freedom and passage out. Cruising on his Honda Dream, a check point appears on a road out of the city. He's carrying his three thousand US dollar deal money in a leather pouch slung over his shoulder. Dumb move number one. Don't stop, he tells himself, detour, turn back, but he keeps going and has to stop. We feel the split second of indecision that forces his hand, and this becomes one of the keys to Asher's fate, the beginning of his end. The police, if that's what they are, are generous this time, taking only $2000. Asher has to turn back, return to Mr. Hawk, massage parlor baron, to borrow against the stolen cash at a rate of 5% per week. Asher knows Hawk uses Thai kick boxers to enforce payments, but the buy has to go down that night, so he has no choice.

Enter Julie G-spot, a Harvard educated tough-guy lady. She has relocated Asher via e-mail after a long hiatus in communication. They'd been lovers in LA. Hurt and confused when the love went bad, Asher signed on for Cambodia through UNESCO. Julie wants out of her New York life, he wants out of Cambodia so they cook up the heroin scheme to sell in New York City. Julie is bartender in a strip joint, and her boss, the unsavory Glen, will move the stuff for them. So far so good (or bad).

It's a literary thriller, the real danger begins when Julie decides to cut out her boss and off the stuff herself. Enter the coincidence that makes the whole twisting escapade carry on to its conclusion. It's a coincidence that in a movie might bug the viewer for a few minutes, but movies are in real time, the reel is spinning, so your disbelief has to be suspended in a hurry before you get too lost and have to ask the friend you came with what's going on. Not so reading a book. A book lets you hear the writer, go with the voice, you take the journey into the plot in long or short sessions and can question whatever it serves up. You can stop to contemplate the structure, and can become a little annoyed if a coincidence really pokes out.

I mean, there are eight million stories in the naked city, but Reese, the straight guy journalist Asher dupes into carrying his five Kilos to the States--believing he's got Asher's life's work in the form of a movie script in a heavy press envelope--turns out to be old school chums with a guy who just happens to hang out at Julie's strip bar, The Stopless, because he wants to bed her. Julie beds Reese instead at the Gramercy Park Hotel, drugs him and makes off with the envelope. Reese is on leave from Phnom Penh for his sister's wedding, and who picks him up the next morning but Weatherly, the old school chum and Julie want-to-make. Try on the line from Casablanca, 'Of all the gin joints in all the cities, she had to walk into mine...' There would be no plot without this major league coincidence of Weatherly and Julie.

This is how it is revealed:
"'What did this girl look like, the one who took you off?'
'Good-looking, a little hard. You know some miles under the hood for her age. She was a brunette.'
'It's Jasmine,' said Weatherly. 'I have her number.'
'Who is Jasmine?'
'Jasmine's real name is Julie. She works at the Stopless. I've been trying to get her into bed for months...'"

Bingo.

Okay, I'm splitting hairs and picking nits. So big deal, a coincidence that feels like a stubbed toe. The plot moves, it turns, it winds, it spirals down, coincidence and all. At times it is a genuine can't-put-down-read, and all in all a savvy book with poignancy. We have the sordid tale not so much of the anti-hero as of the ennui hero.

It may be symbolic--or only coincidence--that Mr. Bingham is so fond of sunset moments. Sunsets are endings. He brings to life his Cambodia (Bingham actually did work and live there for a time). That time of day, a red ball sinking down over the Mekong River, or over a rice patty or jungle-green mountain; beautiful relief in the form of the setting sun. Read for yourself:

"The path broadened as it descended from the main road, giving out onto a wide open field. Asher was amazed to see that it wasn't quite dark here. The last line of sundown, already extinguished in the city, was just hanging on in the field. The horizon was a pencil-thin line of diluted red, barely illuminating the green of the distant rice paddies. Weak blood, thought Asher, a late innings sundown."

It is also a funny and gritty and sexy read. If there is a moral here, I think the writer expects you to find it on your own. There is a scene in the posh Racket Club where Reese happens to sit down on an ergometer next to none other than George Plimpton himself. Imagine working Plimpton into a druggie thriller? I figured out why. Anyone weary of New York street-wise punks will find its opposite humorously treated here. Privileged good old boys, backgammon, martinis and all. Here's Julie picking up Reese in the hotel bar:

"'...What's your name?'
Reese told her.
'What about Roman numerals? You a second or third, anything fancy like that? Because, I don't know, I'm seeing a Roman numeral.'"

And the characters are cultured. Asher keeps a dusting of heroin on him folded into a half page of an old issue of The New Yorker.

LIGHTNING ON THE SUN at times feels sad. Reading Bingham, knowing he didn't make it, kept me conscious of a friend of mine who died a couple of months before him, also young, also a loss of talent. It is too bad that we won't be able to read Robert Bingham's second novel. I would like to have seen where he might have gone next.

On a lighter note, local readers, once again the Burg makes it into print. Until she skips town, Julie G-spot is a resident of Williamsburg. We ride the L train with her, stand by as she has a conversation outside Mugs Bar with a down on his luck musician named David Star. Can it get any closer to home? Is it beginning to feel to anyone else as if the universe has re-centered itself to somewhere along our tree-lined Bedford Avenue? Plenty of current writers seem to think so.


©May,2000 J Stefan Cole

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