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Lightning on the Sun: A Novel Hardcover – April 18, 2000

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Editorial Reviews Review

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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; 1st edition (April 18, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385488564
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385488563
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.9 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,543,530 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.6 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

35 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Casey Lytle on April 13, 2000
Format: Hardcover
A review of the content of this book is really meaningless, because the real appeal is the writing itself. It's the kind of book which grabs you even before the action starts, simply because of the way the words flow off the page into your head. It's "comfortable." And as tragic as it is, knowing the life of the author makes it moreso.
It's grit with a brain. Action with a soul. Your bookmark will fly through its pages and you'll FEEL the characters as they become caught up in the web they've trapped themselves in.
It's a terrific read, an "experience" and a tragedy that there won't be more.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By William T. Vogt Jr. on April 26, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Having read the review in the New York Times that compared this book to the work of Robert Stone, I was waiting for its release anxiously. When I saw the blurb on the cover that mentioned Conrad, I couldn't make it home fast enough. Let me tell you, I was not disappointed. Although not as edgy or quite as well written as Stone, it was up to all my expectations. It is very impressive for a first novel. In fact, I literally couldn't put it down and read it in one day.The author has a great style and was able to describe a number of different locations very well. His plotting and people in Phnom Penh were very vivid and colorful. His descriptions of the New York Racquet Club were so good they made me laugh out loud. I didn't think his characters were quite as edgy or manic as Stone's. He was able to create alot of suspense in the plot because you knew that something bad was about to happen at any minute. This kept me turning those pages. The obvious comparision is to Stone's Dog Soldiers, but I saw some of his A Flag For Sunrise in it as well. If you like this book and haven't read those two, please do so immediately. I'm not sure what happened to Mr. Bingham, but it is a real shame that we will not have more from him.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By taking a rest HALL OF FAME on May 3, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This first and sadly last novel by the deceased Author Robert Bingham begins as an absolute chore to grind through. However if you stick out the first quarter or so you will be rewarded with some fine writing. It is sad that the drug that plays a role in this book caused the death of the man who wrote it, for there was a great Author being introduced.
The book's theme is not new and that is largely responsible for the slow start. I also don't know that readers are comfortable and familiar enough with Cambodia and its Politics for that aspect to be anything more than confusing. The story is dark, and if the word sardonic were the equivalent of a color, the end of the spectrum approaching black would be the reference point.
Asher who is our protagonist is probably the most annoying persona, think of a whining Nicholas Cage character. (It would make a great movie) His life has been one long series of almosts and not quites, and his scam to return to normalcy and home requires he use and abuse a variety of characters. And there is a wide array to enjoy. Ever had your luggage lost and wished you could take it out on the Airline. In one of the book's purely comedic moments an Asian Crime Boss does just that, and it is brilliant. Asher's sometimes soul mate, Harvard Graduate, and living on the fringe is very well done. What could have been a hopelessly cliché bimbette role, become a street-smart woman of letters who has a savage wit, and is said to be full of, "Verities". She also wields a MAG Light with finality. This is not the only character that starts with the expectation of being hopelessly derivative. The Author seemed to enjoy taking what others have done, and then reworked them to show just how well he could write.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Bozeman on March 18, 2005
Format: Paperback
I just read this and I loved this book. And I have also read all of the other writers to whom Bingham has been unfavorably compared. I have to say that the ability to recognize crushingly simple bits of convergence -- oh hey look, this is about an expatriate in Southeast Asia and that was too! -- is no substitute for actual cleverness or critical faculty. The problem with treading anywhere near the emotional or physical territory of cult figures (and they are that, more than they are Greats) like Hemingway and Greene, is that cult-devotees are very vicious about defending the tribal pooh-baa at the center of their dimestore religions.

If this book suffers in any way, it actually suffers from the same disease that afflicts Robert Stone's recent books: idiot publicists determined to sell the books as thrillers, because the publicists -- or whoever makes the decision -- think that this will make men buy them. But these books are not thrillers, and readers aren't stupid. Unfortunately, too many readers also aren't quite bright or compassionate enough to see that the unfair sale is not the author's fault -- no way did the author have any intention of writing a thriller. Lightning on the Sun is a literary novel that happens to be about a heroin deal and set mostly in Cambodia. Read it as a literary novel and be amazed. I also wholeheartedly recommend Bingham's short-stories, which are nasty, dark, profane, and uplifting.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 29, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Had Borges re-written Don Quixote, it might have been something like Bingham channeling Dog Soldiers in this book. The book seems most in the spirit of the Goldie Hawn movie Foul Play (because of the dwarf, I guess) and Jim Thompson's surreal stuff (The Getaway, Savage Night) rather than, say, Heart of Darkness and The Comedians. It's true about the characters, though: they're all anorexically limned and not a one of 'em has the magnificent nihilism of the boys 'n girls in Pure Slaughter Value. The book seems unfinished and rushed in spots; notably, G-Spot Julie's visit to Katherine's apartment, Reese's sister's wedding, and the trope of the bats at the end. Like James M. Cain, much of the dialogue is terribly stilted (try reading Asher's Merchant Prince ramblings aloud). There's much athletic sex, though (mercifully) not in the Colin "Afterburn" Harrison vein. Its moral issues are the same as those in Three Kings. To Bingham's (or Gerald Howard's) credit, the book reads very smoothly, despite the lamely convenient plot.
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