It's difficult to read Thai-American writer Rattawut Lapcharoensap's debut collection of stories, without the...
It’s difficult to read Thai-American writer Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s debut collection of stories, “Sightseeing” (Grove, 250 pp., $19.95), without the shadow of the recent tsunami disaster looming over it. A couple of its stories are set in the tourist spots where the waves did severe damage, and Lapcharoensap closes one of those stories with an image that haunts you in a way he couldn’t have intended at the time he wrote it. Natural catastrophe trumps art here.
That said, “Sightseeing” is a promising debut — a book that works better when it’s tougher than when it strays toward sentiment, even if it sometimes goes for easy targets (crass Western tourists, small-town thugs). At its best, it does justice to the complications and ironies that arise when cultures collide.
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Rattawut Lapcharoensap will read from “Sightseeing,” 7:30 tonight, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
Its toughest tale is “Cockfighter,” a novella with a near folk-tale-like feel to it as it describes a family caught in a downward spiral. Set in a small Thai town where no one has the nerve to stand up to the local kingpin and his retinue, it tells of a factory worker and his seamstress wife who lose almost everything they have to the husband’s high-stakes cockfighting habit. To complicate matters, Little Jui — the kingpin’s bullying son, to whom Wichian keeps losing cash — is enamored of Wichian’s teenage daughter Ladda, who narrates the tale. Indeed, he’s willing to go to almost any length to win her … if attempted abduction can be described as “winning.”
Each step Wichian takes toward pushing his family to ruin is viscerally conveyed. Yet his struggle to defend his pride and dignity and that of his town against its local tyrants amounts to more than just simple-minded stubbornness. The sarcasm of his wife (“You’d think God invented stupidity the same day he came up with the penis”) and the canniness of his teenage daughter in avoiding Little Jui’s attentions have a leavening effect on the story’s grim progress, too. The tale’s final wrinkle is nothing short of beautiful.
“At the Café Lovely” comes close to matching “Cockfighter,” as its narrator recalls the farrago that ensued when his older teenage brother took him to a café-brothel when the kid was only 11. In a sly narrative twist, the distortions that guilt can effect on memory cast doubts as to whether the episode even took place.
“Draft Day,” about a friendship killed by corruption (one friend can afford the bribe to avoid military service, the other can’t), tackles its chosen issue adroitly — even if it doesn’t give us full-fledged characters. “Priscilla the Cambodian” does likewise with its look at refugees from Khmer Rouge terror in shantytown Bangkok.
“Don’t Let Me Die in This Place” is narrated by an American widower, partially paralyzed by a stroke, who has been forced to take up residence with his son, Thai daughter-in-law and “mongrel grandchildren” in Bangkok. Unhappy in his wheelchair, he’s too cartoonishly tetchy and bigoted to be believed at first — but he eventually acquires a more subtly shaded personality trait or two.
“Farang,” about the disappointments a son inflicts on his long-suffering motel-owner mother in a Phuket-like resort (“Oh no, not again … Are you bonking one of the guests?”), is broad but probably perfectly accurate satire.
The one real failure here, strangely, is the book’s title story. It gets off to a dubious start by maintaining there’s a point on the Isthmus of Kra (40 miles wide at its narrowest) where you can see both the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand from a train traveling at near sea-level. True, this may be an overly literal objection. But Lapcharoensap labors the image to a point where it either has to work for you or mar a tale that feels contrived to begin with, as it portrays a mother who, upon learning she’s going blind, determinedly takes one last vacation with her sulky teenage son to the Andaman Islands.
Still, the story’s last line, in the light of recent events, is a little eerie. The son is narrating: “I’m walking onto the sandbar, warm waves licking up across my bare feet, out to watch the sun rise with Ma, and then to bring her back before the tide heaves, before the ocean rises, before this sand becomes seafloor again.”
Lapcharoensap’s word choice, especially “heaves,” is enough to make you think writers sometimes get glimpses of the news before the rest of the world does — whether they know it or not.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org