Near the beginning of “Farangs,” the opening story of Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s debut short-story collection, the young Thai narrator remembers how his American father ordered him to call him Sergeant. “Not Daddy… Sergeant. Sergeant Henderson. Sergeant Marshall. Remember you’re a soldier now, boy. A spy for Uncle Sam’s army.” He happily agrees, performing imaginary covert operations with his dad along the beach next to the hotel where they live. But the young man the narrator becomes, after his father goes back to the States, leaving him and his Thai mother behind, is hardly the spy his father imagined. If he spies on anyone, it is the fat, stingy American tourists—farangs—who, in the words of his mother, want only “pussy and elephants.”
Reading Sightseeing, one gets the impression that the 20-something Lapcharoensap—born in Chicago, raised in Bangkok, and educated in Ithaca—is writing from experience; like his protagonist, he seems comfortable with both cultures, not completely at home in either. His characters range from American businessmen to Cambodian refugees; his best stories involve the intersection of Thai and American cultures.
In “Farangs,” probably the best story in the collection, the narrator falls in love with a Budweiser-bikini-wearing American, in large part because she doesn’t “scream or jump out of the sand” when his pig, Clint Eastwood, sniffs her crotch. His mother warns him to stay away from the tourists “because once, long ago, she had bonked a farang herself, against the wishes of her own parents, and all she got for her trouble was a broken heart and me in return.” But the next day, in spite of his mother’s warning, he takes the American on an elephant ride, bonks her (on top of the elephant), and falls in love. I won’t give away the end, but it involves angry frat boys, mangoes, and Clint Eastwood, the pig, swimming out into the sunset.
Another dead-on portrayal of culture collision is “Don’t Let Me Die in This Place,” the story of a cantankerous, wheelchair-bound Washingtonian who moves in with his son’s Thai family in Bangkok. The title pretty much encapsulates Mister Perry’s initial attitude toward Thailand and his hosts: He calls his grandchildren “the mongrel children,” and he semi-accidentally kicks his grandson in the face. But Perry is acting out of wounded pride, grief, and fear of change. As the story progresses, the mongrels become “my grandson” and “my granddaughter”; “the wife” becomes “Tida.” At one point, he tells his son, “‘Don’t be such a curmudgeon.’” That Lapcharoensap manages this transition without making the story sappy or unbelievable is testament to his abilities as a writer.
Unlike the angsty upper-middle-class white kids in many American coming-of-age stories, the characters in Sightseeing come up against some very concrete problems—refugees, prostitution, and poverty, to name a few. When he’s at his best, Lapcharoensap is able to tackle these difficult issues with a sense of humor. The funniest story in the collection, “At the Café Lovely,” is about a young boy trying to deal with death, depression, and drug abuse. Lapcharoensap finds an uncomfortable comedy in, for example, the boy’s banging on brothel doors in search of his brother. He throws up his first McDonald’s hamburger, a bribe from the brother: “Anek turned to me and said: ‘That’s the first and last time, kid. I can’t believe you. All that money for a bunch of puke. No more fucking hamburgers for you.’”
But some of Lapcharoensap’s more serious coming-of-age stories fall flat. “Draft Day,” “Sightseeing,” and “Cockfighter” all feel overwrought:
This is not the first time she has kissed me as she has kissed her own sons. Years later I will remember her kiss on that draft day morning, the scent of menthol wafting from her shoulders, the way her wet hair sprinkled my cheek, and I will feel like I’m falling from some great and excruciating height and the feeling will refuse to leave me for days.
“Cockfighter,” the 91-page novella that concludes the book, is according to the blurb on the book’s front flap, “‘an astonishing coming-of-ager’ (Kirkus Reviews) in which a young girl witnesses her proud father’s valiant but foolhardy battle against a local delinquent…” The story is often guilty of the same failed eloquence. Take, for example, the following passage: “Would Papa have lessened the sum total of the world’s suffering by killing Big Jui?…Would I still love my father knowing that he was capable of such violence? Would Mama? Where did murderous vengeance end and principled righteousness—justice—begin?” The last time I heard teenagers talking like that was on Dawson’s Creek.
In general, however, Lapcharoensap has an impressive control over language. For every overexuberant adjective there is a paragraph of exquisite beauty and originality. And if his characters are sometimes unnaturally introspective, most of them feel like real people, with hidden faults, stupid idiosyncrasies, and unattainable dreams.CP
Rattawut Lapcharoensap reads from and signs copies of Sightseeing at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 9, at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. For more information, call (202) 364-1919.