When I was young and single, I fantasized about visiting Bangkok's fleshpot buffet. But, even 11 years in the Navy didn't provide the opportunity as I never made it away from Stateside. Now that I'm older, married, and only marginally wiser, I doubt that my wife would let me go - even if I could imagine conjuring up the energy to carouse once I got there. And there is, of course, the sobering specter of AIDS. But, should any of you young studs embark on the tour, PRIVATE DANCER should be required reading before reaching the airport departure gate.
Pete is a freelance writer hired by a publishing house to edit a new cookery book/travel guide for Thailand. Once ensconced in Bangkok, Pete is introduced to the red-light district by friend Nigel, where Pete meets pole dancer/prostitute Joy in the Zombie Bar. Pete is smitten despite advice from the resident expats that it's best not to get emotionally involved with a bar babe. And despite all the evidence, some provided by a private detective, that Joy is simply using Pete as a cash ATM, that she's married to a Thai man, and that she has sex with other farang (foreign) customers when he's out of town, Pete remains enamored of his PRIVATE DANCER. He desperately wants to believe her excuses, lies, and proclamations of true love - "I love you and have you in my heart only one. Miss you all the time."
Author Stephen Leather takes an interesting approach to the story, telling it alternately from the viewpoints of Pete, Joy, Pete's farang friends and acquaintances (Nigel, Big Ron, Bruce, Jimmy), the private detective Phiraphan, Pete's employer Alistair, and a certain Professor Bruno Mayer, an expert on prostitution in Thailand and cross-cultural relationships between the sex workers and their customers. What results is a fascinating and informative parable on the perils of falling for a Bangkok hooker that's probably just as valid no matter what the city, country, or nationality of the working girl. Indeed, as Stephen describes the milieu of Pete's tragic experience, the reader perhaps understands that it's more of a culture clash than anything else. From Joy's perspective, her life and means of getting money for herself and her family back in their village are nothing unusual or immoral. For her, emotional love for, and the provision of money by, a man are two sides of the same coin. The problem for westerner Pete, a Brit, is that he necessarily separates the two. In the end, the open-minded reader can rightly attach no blame to either, but only marvel at Pete's foolishness in the face of good advice from his Anglo and Australian friends that are old Bangkok hands.
PRIVATE DANCER seemed, at times, a bit too long for the message. In an email correspondence with Leather, I asked if the tale was based on the experience of anyone he knew. With utter candor, the author implied that at least some of the story derived from his own youthful follies. Perhaps Stephen was driven to over-emphasize the lesson - "Don't let this happen to you!" In any case, the book is an engaging addition to the backpack as you set out to sample the neon-bathed, x-rated delights of Patpong, Nana Plaza, and Soi Cowboy.