"You listening to me, boy?... Bikinis don't ride. It scares the animals.... Need I remind you, boy, that the elephant is our national symbol?.... What if I went to her country and rode a bald eagle in my underwear, huh? How would she like it? Ask her, will you?"
Somewhere in Thailand, in a dilapidated yard with two scrofulous elephants, a shirtless old man is shouting at a teenage boy and a young blonde in a Budweiser bikini. The blonde is oblivious and, it's pretty clear, about to break the boy's heart. The boy gives a deep, half-serious bow to the old man and then delivers himself up to have his heart crushed by yet another vacationing foreign girl.
The pull of exotic foreigners, or farangs, and everything they bring, runs throughout Rattawut Lapcharoensap's debut collection of short stories, Sightseeing, while Thailand itself is fascinatingly ordinary. (In "Don't Let Me Die in This Place," the monks hold a kiddie carnival fundraiser on the grounds of their Buddhist temple, with bumper cars and everything. Why not?) Like the girl's bikini, Armani sunglasses, fast food, and a Cambodian refugee girl's gold teeth all become totemic objects. And all, at some point, become lost or disappoint. What remains steadfast is a modern Thailand, one with middle-class families, petty corruption, smart-talking, tough-loving mothers, refugee issues, motorbikes and Toyota Corollas, and, yes, tropical beaches.
This modern globalization extends to the dialogue as well. All of the characters, whether they're speaking Thai or English, speak a blunt and surprisingly Americanized idiom. But why should characters dip and bow, stutter and stammer, or turn their grammar quaintly around, as all too often they do in other novels or stories, just to indicate they're not speaking English? All the characters, from teenage Thai boys to an elderly American man transplanted to Bangkok against his will, seem fresh and real, rooted in their home countries, without being exoticized.
The centerpiece of the book is "Cock-fighter," a teenage girl's story about her father's descent into a mad and fruitless obsession with restoring his dignity in the cockfighting ring. His chickens' losses, night after night, reverberate through his daughter's own life, making her tiny Thai town feel constricting and repressive--the way any small town anywhere could. The town's strutting bullies, Big and Little Jui, with their mute sidekicks and their Range Rovers, are also universal and familiar. That is, until Little Jui bites the head off one of her father's prize chickens:
"And then Little Jui just sat there with his mouth full of feathers, blood dribbling down his chin, a crazed, petulant grin on his face, before spitting Somsak's head in Papa's direction. 'Draw,' he declared triumphantly. 'Nobody wins.'"
Familiar or not, that's just good storytelling. Lapcharoensap's skill lies in action rather than description (you won't come away with any clearer picture of Thai beaches, for example, unless you didn't already know they had "fine sand," "turquoise water," and "millions of fishes"). But things big and small happen in these stories, the events gradually fleshing out the characters, their pasts and motivations.
In Sightseeing, Lapcharoensap, who, at 25, has already won heaps of praise from the literary world, has created a series of unhurried, meaty, and thoughtful stories. The result is satisfying far beyond what you'd expect from such a slim book.