Bangkok pulp writer James Newman has hammered out another shot-from-the-hip fast-as-they-come thriller, featuring recovering alcoholic and PI Joe Dylan drifting through the Zone, a sly reference to William Burrough’s Interzone – a place where all races lead to the bottom, all smiles are false and everyone is out to kill everyone else for a few bucks. Like Burroughs, Newman both despises and admires the darkness he has witnessed and he manages to harvest a modicum of sloth and violence in his newest story.
Joe Dylan gets involved with a bar girl who turns up dead soon after. As he begins to investigate her suspicious suicide he slips into a criminal web of violent fetish sex, human sacrifice and black magic and turns from the hunter to the hunted, with blow dart shooting killers of uncertain gender on his trail. Even dwarfs and the Ramayana appear in cameos.
In fact, all the standard ghouls of the Bangkok night turn out, from psychotic ladyboys to flesh eating monitor lizards. The writing is fluid and assured and Dylan’s journey through a world so rancid that the grime almost oozes through the screen – if one were to read the e-book edition of Red Night Zone – never falters. The circumstances of this particularly tragic reality are well explored, perhaps, occasionally, too deeply.
The heart of Newman’s literary mission – the crossing of Beat style writing and observation’s of Thailand turgid world of sex-pats – is not as obvious as it might sound. The seedy Thai-foreign underworld is easy to describe and difficult to bring to life. Exuberant gaudiness and total degradation, detachment and vast suffering, extreme highs and shattering lows are opposites intrinsic to the Bangkok night reality yet difficult to convey without either descending into tabloid journalism styles or out and out sleaze. Newman, by looking back to the Beats and the mass paperback culture of the 40s and 50s, is just far enough away from depravity to sail his ship. For the most part his observations on the monstrous are spot-on, though his notion that the foreign Johns are the greater victims in the sordid death-sex-life-dance that moves along the streets of downtown Bangkok may not be palatable nor agreeable to all readers. But that doesn’t stop James Newman finding his dark corner and rolling around in it. The course is charted, there’s wind in the sails and Joe Dylan is likely to revisit the Zone somewhere near you soon. He will just slip onto a barstool, turn his head and the chapter will start something like this: The Nazi bargirl lit a cigarette and asked for a drink.
Of course she did.
Originally published in The Chiang Mai City News