Do we really need yet another novel about Bangkok bargirls?
This one we do. This one is funny. True to its title, “Sukhumvit” takes place mostly in a narrow erotic trench running form Nana to the Thermae to Cowboy. “Write about what you know,” Hemingway famously said, and author David Young knows his stuff. He wrote a very decent first novel called “The Scribe” about a farang letter-writer for Thai hookers. He wrote two more novels, which I confess I haven’t read, but “Sukhumvit” — in terms of wacky characters, convoluted plot and wildly comic language — is a big advance over “The Scribe.” It’s a good-hearted Feydeau sexual farce, threaded with an ominous streak of evil.
Five American men are in love with the same bargirl, Bami. Two happen to be sitting next to each other on a plane to Bangkok: a young computer nerd named Nathan Fox who met Bami at Chatuchak Market and has no notion of his former live-in girlfriend’s real job; and Owen Macy, a middle-aged Protestant minister who has abandoned his wife and faith for a new life with Bami on Koh Samui Also on the plane is the Tourist from Hell: a loud, drunken, reeking fat lout who calls himself Frye Fisk, a bradly comic incarnation of the Devil, capable of disappearing acts and casting nasty spells. (I told you this is a farce).
Here’s Bami’s take on Frye when she meets him in a Soi Cowboy bar:
“Bami lowered her hand and looked at the man. She had long understood that the world was not perfect. That nature sometimes exaggerated its creations and these exaggerations sought her love and affection after other women turned them away. Nature produced men covered in fat and fur and men with heads shaped like light bulbs. Nature produced men with wormhole eyes and shotgun barrel stares. There were men with twitches, scars, speech impediments, missing limbs, and two noses. With every man she met, Bami tried to look beyond the deformity, (because, let’s face it, they’re all deformed in one way or another), and judge a man not by his looks — but by the money he would give her to see him as someone fine. There was something about this one, however, that physically turned her stomach and caused her to wrinkle her nose at a rotten egg taste in her mouth.”
The three others in the roster of Bami’s lovers are her former boss Frank Russo, part owner of a Nana Plaza bar; Rollie, a drunk who is writing the story of her life; and Phineas McIntyre, a hit-man on a convoluted mission involving marriage to the daughter of an underworld chief named Doctor Ruay. The characters all wind up in a frantic chase around Bangkok, each desperately searching for their own ends.
Bami is a child of the Klong Toei slum and knows her own mind,
“If it came to a choice, she would choose Owen. True, he had twenty or more years on her, but there were qualities in him that were missing in her former boyfriend. Owen, for example, never expected her to take care of herself. He never asked her to do something with her time — to better herself or use her free moments constructively. Nathan was always buying her books to read. He was always trying to make her into someone she wasn’t, even when he wouldn’t admit to it. Bami never knew what he wanted. That is, she never knew what finished product he had in mind. An exotic looking American? A girl who liked the same movies and read the same books? Someone who shared his soul? That wasn’t her, thank you. Sure, she loved him. But spend the rest of her life with him? Travel to America and eat sandwiches and hot dogs? Mae!”
“Owen was the only one who loved her for what she was. The only one who didn’t try to rescue her from misery and ignorance. The only one who didn’t ask her to change. Owen and Roley, of course, but Roley was crazy. He could never take care of her the way she wished to be taken care of. He’d paw her and lick her feet like a dog begging for attention. Cute at first, then downright annoying. Owen was the one she would allow into her life. All the while letting him think it was he who was opening the door for her.
Foreign men were so gullible that way.”
The tale takes place in the last few days before Christmas. There are numerous delightful plot switches culminating with all the characters pairing off with exactly whom you wouldn’t expect. A series of great comic set pieces involve Peppermint, a drug-addled katoey, and Dandy, a dwarf “humanoid,” who have taken over Bami’s old apartment. Phineas and Bami, both looking to escape their professions, develop a real friendship. Frank Russo is tempted by the arrival in Bangkok of his old American flame. Frye tries mightily to seduce Owen into the consolations of suicide.
All find some kind of redemption, except of course the Devil in his last incarnation as a nightclub comic who revels in his own damnation.