Young men find spring the time of renewal, but those of us with a few beers under our belts and even more miles on our butts find spring to be simply a false promise of greenery destined to whither, a flowered frenzied promise never meant to be kept. In the clear, hot sunshine of autumn, the promise of winter waits just inside the shade of the pines, a vow always honored. Whatever winter brings – aching bones, starving elk, frozen children – we’ve got this moment of blue clarity.
Quote from The Mexican Tree Duck (1993) by James Crumley
Sipping hot black coffee, Crow watched the two of them from a window booth in the drive-in. Chicks out of the nest, he had thought at first, a pair of lorn adolescent lovers thumbing at the cars hurtling past them on the late-afternoon freeway. Then he saw the boy snarl something at the girl and roughly jerk her arm up into a hitchhiking stance more to his liking, and the gesture aged him, pushing him on into his twenties, already an executive type, despite his long hair and scraggly beard and garish cowboy get-up. The girl remained very much a kid, though, fifteen or sixteen at the most, all gangling jeans and long coppery hair. And it nettled Crow to see how she accepted her boyfriend’s peevish discipline, with such a practiced resignation, as if it were already an old routine in her young life.
The opening paragraph of Dreamland (1983) by Newton Thornburg, is almost the best thing going in this California set crime novel that wears its shades of Noir semi-comfortably.
Meet Crow, a hapless 30 something drifter on the way to see his aging father, an ex cop and member of America’s intelligence community. On the way, Crow picks up the couple in the above quoted bit of text, but soon gets rid of the boy only to fall for the girl, who is sixteen. The unlikely couple are soon sucked into a private investigation of sorts, trying to solve the mystery of the deadly car accident of the old man, whom Crow never had much time for. Soon our protagonist and his underage friend encounter dead hookers, psychopathic murderers and more intelligence people – some of whom seem to be barely aware nor deserving of such a description. Thornburg does some great character set-ups and the narrative bubbles along from gruesome killing to sex-addled clue, involving fabulously rich homosexuals, retarded killers and government agents in search of a moral compass. What’s new, you might ask. It’s an all too familiar America that is wheeled out onto the literary porch for our perusal, corrupt and seedy but many steps away from a Jim Thompson of David Goodis Type crisis of humanity. No, Dreamland is Noir lite, a good beach read, fluently written, with a mostly predictable plot and charcaters we occasionally care for.
Crow’s daily indecision of whether to bed the 16 year of sidekick or a fabulously wealthy woman his own age is the key to the novel, the energy that drives the narrative forward and the only genuinely unique and interesting aspect of Dreamland. Without wanting to spoil anything, Crow gets his cakes and eats them and this throws some moral ambiguity and sordid fun into an otherwise run of the mill story of murder and misunderstanding in cruel America.
Massimo Carlotto is Italy’s darkest crime writer bar none. Imprisoned for many years for a murder he did not commit, he has written a whole bunch of achingly beautiful and mean tales of crime and corruption in Italy.
My favorite of Carlotto’s novels is Death’s Dark Abyss, which I reviewed on this blog some time ago.
Producing great art in Thailand is difficult. It is even harder producing great art about Bangkok, the Thai capital.
On the one hand, Thai artists are constrained by wide-ranging limits of self-expression and freedom of speech. Decades of repression – occasionally both violent and deadly – of intellectuals, left-field politicians, social activists and artists, as well as high profile campaigns by the Ministry of Culture that appears concerned primarily with Thailand’s image abroad (in the same way the Catholic church or a multinational corporation spin alternative history) and countless, anything but subtle attempts to push a narrow elitist view of what it means to be Thai down the population’s collective throat, appear to have taken their toll.
Musicians, painters, film makers, poets and writers, for the most part, produce bland, non-confrontational, easy-to-consume fare, in tune with autocratic opinion-makers in the government and military. Those who do produce genuine masterpieces – like highly acclaimed film makers Pen Ek Ratanaruang, whose most recent film Headshot played Thai cinemas with a limited release for little more than week or Apichatpong Weerasethakul whose excellent Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which one the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2010 – are occasionally lauded abroad, yet ignored at home.
Civil society has almost nothing to say about Thailand’s political shenanigans, and academics who raise their heads above the common swill are vilified and attacked by army generals and policemen. Sadly the quasi-fascist governments Thailand suffered through in the wake of World War II, supported by the US during the Cold War, have done terrible damage to Thailand’s current Zeitgeist.
On the other hand, millions of foreigners visit the country each year, in search of cheap holidays, beautiful beaches, great food and cheaper sex. Try as it might, Bangkok has not shaken its reputation as one of the world’s notorious sex capitals – though one might argue that Pattaya, a collection of high rises and brothels that puts Miami to shame, located a couple of hours east of the Thai capital, should actually be holding the crown as the number one Sleazeville in the region. In Thailand, if you have the money, you can buy anything readers of this page are likely to be able to imagine.
Some of the visiting foreigners love it so much, they stay. They just can’t stop rolling around in it. And some, a few, produce work about their experiences – books, films, visual art. Almost everything they write or shoot or paint is crap – cliched rubbish populated by sad stereo-types even more disturbing and one-dimensional than the Fellinis, tweekers, sex-pats and creeps that swarm from international flights into Bangkok’s airport and into the lonely tropical nights beyond, every single day of the year. Stand in the arrivals hall for an hour and watch what comes off the plane and you will see what I mean.
In recent years, several small independent publishers have given rise to a couple of genres of piss-awful ‘literature’ dedicated to those wallowing in Bangkok’s nighttime muck. On the one hand, writers like Christopher Moore and John Burdett lead a small pack of crime writers dispensing twisted tales of nefarious on-goings in the Thai capital, while there’s another batch of worse authors who churn out books, both fiction and non fiction (it hardly matters) focused entirely on Bangkok’s sordid and tired sex for sale nightlife, dreaming up badly written tales of hapless, happy or predatory hookers. In these crummy tomes, the myths of the happy whore, the seedy but decent private eye fighting the forces of evil and the land of smiles are copied and pasted over and over again. Sadly, those millions of punters who spend most of their time propped up on a bar stool in a go-go bar in Patpong, Nana or Cowboy (those Bangkok’s nightlife areas that are frequented by foreigners), relate to most of this literary dross and provide a market for it. There are enough dumbbells out there buying into the story of swinging Bangkok to enable a whole roster of useless scribes to eke out a living, or at least provide themselves with opportunities to stroke their egos.
There are exceptions of course – artists and writers who try to approach Bangkok’s high and low life from their own personal and unique perspectives without getting their private parts caught in the recesses of passing ladyboys. The Windup Girl by Pablo Bacigalupi is an excellent novel about the Thai capital, set in the 23rd century, a time when a Monsanto-type corporation has destroyed the world and the Thais own the world’s last seed bank. Gripping drama, and yes, there’s sex thrown in, as well fascinating politics, social comment and rip-roaring action. For me, literary visions of Bangkok almost end there.
Navigating the Bangkok Noir, a book of paintings by American artist Chris Coles, takes a different route into Bangkok’s underbelly. This series of expressionist paintings in book form, published by Marshall Cavendish and accompanied by sensitive and insightful captions by the artist, somehow manages to take us to the same places that the Bangkok hacks frequent without falling for the same cliches. Perhaps painting is a better medium to portray the sadness and beauty, the darkness and the occasional rays of bright shining light – in short the unearthly glow of the Thai capital – than the written word. Perhaps, because Thailand prides itself on its anti-intellectualism, Coles’ images transcend the prostitute Disneyland of countless wasted pulp novels and bring some real dignity and, most importantly, substance to its subjects.
Coles’ paintings have a bitter-sweet glow all of their own, taking us down the crummy sois, letting us look at the city from a street dog’s perspective (who is really a German sex tourist, we are told), helping us understand that the world is unfair, and that as soon as it gets dark, unfairness goes at a premium in the City of Angels. The artist manages a difficult hat trick. His night girls are beautiful and tragic at the same time. His johns are as gross as in real life and yet they have charisma. His world is sleazy, sure, but it exists and the artist has a gentle way of explaining why it has a right to do so, just as much as any other world out there.
There is reason to paint these people – that appears to be the central premise of Coles’ work – and the artist knows how to pick his characters, men and women of an inconsequential neon-netherworld that exists primarily because it offers an escape from the equally sordid and boring but less exotic real world its inhabitants came from. The girls leave their villages because girls have very very little opportunity in Thailand and the men fly in from around the world because they can no longer cope with their lives and loves and prefer to pay for female (or otherwise) company or are so lonely that they will accept semi-literate rice farmers as MCs providing psychiatric discourse on the hang-ups of the western world.
Chris Coles catches the nuances, the small pains and tiny losses and gains that are made each night on Sukhumvit, Bangkok’s main downtown thoroughfare: he captures the tide of emotional refuse that washes up on the Thai capital’s pavements. The women emerge with dignity intact, while the men don’t emerge at all. They are what they are, empty, broken human beings who roll around in it.
Navigating the Bangkok Noir is an excellent introduction to Southeast Asia’s Interzone, to the black patches on the global map of capitalist indifference, and to the lost opportunities of thousands of young Thai women who get screwed, both literally and metaphorically, day in, day out, by their government, by society, by the cops, by peer pressure and by foreigners. I don’t see this book in the Top Ten of the Ministry of Culture any time soon. It’s got too much soul.