Thursday, June 21, 2012

Bangkok City. A Review by Tom Tuohy

A review of Bangkok City by Tom Tuohy author of Watching the Thais.

When a friend suggested I read James Newman’s new book, Bangkok City, I did so with a sense of trepidation. For one thing, despite 15 years in the Kingdom, I’d never heard of him. I’d read the better known expat writers of course, like C. G. Moore, Stephen Leather, Colin Piprill, and William Page, and I enjoyed their writing immensely.

I’d also assumed that James Newman’s genre was a mish mash of the usual sexpat genre that we see on many a book shelf in Kinokuniya or Asia Books: a staple diet of essentially the same tawdry story - overweight, divorced expat, seeks new life in Thailand, meets a bar girl half his age, falls in love, takes care of her family, till finally one day he wakes up realising he’s been fleeced of his savings and, with nothing left and having been shorn of the last vestiges of his self esteem, he throws himself off a condo in Pattaya.

I was wrong. James Newman’s writing is anything but tawdry or predictable. His characters are full of home spun wisdom and his sense of storytelling, including pace and characterization, is extremely good. His knowledge, not just of the way Thais think and act, but of the places they inhabit, mentally as well as physically, is unique among expat writers currently in the Kingdom. His ear for the subtle nuances of language, both in Thai and English, show a world that few expats ever see. His inside knowledge of Buddhism, Brahmanism, and the way both religions weave around the general, day-today Thai superstitions encapsulated in magic and doled out by the maw doos (psychics), is incisive and well researched.

Despite a few typos here and there, and the occasional structural flaw, his ability to construct a sentence and to add clever imagery also suggests he’s destined for greater things in the literary sphere. The Bangkok in Bangkok City is reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. The very notion of the city is shown for what it is: a repository of broken dreams and unquenched desires; a city populated by people who are not what they seem; corrupt cops, ex-Muay Thai boxers cum gangsters, spiritually and emotionally bankrupt expats, and fatally ambitious Thai hookers ready to sell their souls for the promise of a better tomorrow; a world that, were he still alive, Charles Bukowski would have recognised in all its tacky urban splendor.

With the exception of C. G. Moore and Rattavut Lapcharoensap, I think few have accurately depicted what it’s like to live in Thailand. I recommend this book to anyone wanting to discover the real underbelly of Thai living: a place where things can be had for a price, but not necessarily one worth paying; a place where you can enter into a Mephistoclean pact just as long as you know that when you reach the proverbial checkout counter, you may have to pay the ultimate price and give up the thing you value most: your very soul.

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