If you give your protagonist a name as terse and manly as Asher, you had better be writing a thriller. Robert Bingham's antihero in Lightning on the Sun
is in fact called Asher, but the novel isn't quite sure whether it's a thriller or not. The material is right for suspense: Bingham demonstrates a working knowledge of Cambodia (where he was a reporter) and a deeper knowledge of the byzantine pathways of New York old money. It seems, too, that he has had at least a passing acquaintance with the pleasures of heroin--he died of an overdose in early 2000, and his novel is well dusted with white powder. You can see how a writer with this kind of stuff at hand would be unable to resist turning it into a thriller.
The plot is drug-deal boilerplate: Asher, eager to flee Phnom Penh after several years there, borrows money from a Cambodian loan shark and sends a huge shipment of heroin to his ex-girlfriend, who works in a topless bar in Manhattan. The hapless, blue-blazer-wearing reporter Reese is unwittingly tapped to transport the goods from Cambodia to America. Events, needless to say, do not go as planned. Bad juju travels back and forth between the two countries, and by the end, the Khmer Rouge are waving hoes around.
The plot is fairly creaky, full of exposition and coincidence, but the novel is written well enough to keep the pages turning. In fact, by the end, one wonders if Bingham really needs the trappings of suspense at all. His characters are maddening and complex, full of surprising heroism and predictable failures. And his details of life in both countries resound with rightness. He understands the way aid organizations and crime together propel the daily life of Cambodia. "The Russians were known for their criminal sociability and saw their stay in Cambodia as a financial boondoggle. They were thieves, and the UN was a great unguarded henhouse for the fox." And anyone who's spent any time in Southeast Asia will understand Reese's response to hearing a Cambodian band swing into a rendition of "Hotel California": "'Oh, Lord,' said Reese, placing his hand to his temples. 'Please. Not again.'" A great thriller Lightning on the Sun is not, but Bingham's textured depiction of expat life is worth a look. --Claire Dederer
From Publishers Weekly
An American expat in Cambodia with a burgeoning drug problem--and deepening debts to a murderous Phnom Penh loan shark--tries to smuggle three kilos of heroin to his ex-girlfriend, a "lapsed Harvard graduate" and stripper in New York City, by enlisting the unwitting help of a preppy newspaper journalist in this engrossing, posthumous debut. Asher has come to Phnom Penh with UNESCO, hoping to put as much distance as possible between himself and Julie, the love of his life. Now she's the only one who has both the connections and the desire to save him. But after Asher tricks Reese, a respectable tennis club acquaintance (he "looked like the drunk American in La Dolce Vita") into taking the drugs through U.S. customs, the plan starts to unravel, thanks to a series of suspenseful, stylishly written double crosses that take the action from Gramercy Park to Harlem and from smalltown New England back to Cambodia, where Bingham delivers an equally stylish ending. As in his story collection (Pure Slaughter Value), Bingham stands out here as a hip traditionalist, elegantly updating the conventions of Graham Greene and Robert Stone, and as a knowing chronicler of high-WASP misbehavior. For all its wit and verve, though, the novel is impossible to read outside the shadow of Bingham's own death, last November, from a heroin overdose. It's not just that substance abuse looms so large in the lives of all his main characters, but that underneath their jaundiced dialogue and flippant derring-do--"Friends of friends had been found dead in their beds. Julie got the bill, rolled, and snorted it up"--they seem frightened of, and trapped in, their own recklessness. This is a melancholy triumph from a writer who might have become one of the strongest of his generation. (May) FYI: Bingham worked as a reporter for the Cambodian Daily and was a founding editor of the literary magazine Open City.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.