Although translated fiction from Thai writers remains almost completely unavailable in this country, this debut collection of short stories (Some of which appeared in publications like Granta and Zoetrope) from a young Thai-American writer offers at least a partial insiders view of a country best known as a tourist destination. The cultural collision between rich Western countries and developing countries is a recurring theme in literature from the non-Western world, and all too often the indignation and anger this arouses overpowers the storytelling. Here, however, Lapcharoensap manages the tricky task of balancing the characters and stories with his need to critique the effects of globalization. And in doing so, he always manages to bring modern Thailand to life, making it an integral part of each story, rather than an exotic backdrop.
The opening story, "Farangs" (Foreigners), sets the tone of the relationship between West and impoverished East, as a teenage Amerasian narrates the simple story of meeting an American girl on holiday. He has fond memories of his long-gone American G.I. father, who gave him a pet pig named Clint Eastwood before leaving. The girl represents the unattainable world his father inhabits, and while he can taste it, the ending shows he will never be a part of it. There's a very nice moment in the story that captures its essence, when the very literate boy recounts his offer to correct a misspelled sign for an elephant hire service, only to be told to leave it alone, as the foreigners find such mistakes charming. In another, more pointed anecdote, he recounts how he used to climb coconut trees for small change from tourists, making monkey noises.
In "At the Café Lovely", the narrator is another fatherless adolescent boy. Here, instead of searching for love in the eyes of American girls, he looks up to his teenage brother. In the most overt metaphor in the book, their father died when a crate of cheap toys destined for America fell and crushed him. In case the reader misses the point, it's reinforced later when the kid gets taken to a newly opened and very expensive McDonalds by his brother. Dressed in their best clothes for this visit to the temple of Western taste, the outing turns into a debacle when the young boy can't stomach his first hamburger and vomits. Most of the story is about the love between the two brothers, and it ends up on a hauntingly poetic note, as they speed home from a bar/brothel on a motor scooter with the younger brother driving for the first time.
"Draft Day" is a pretty short and straightforward expose of the national service lottery every teenage Thai male must take part in. Two friends of different backgrounds go forth, one has had his draw "fixed", the other hasn't. Even with a limited story to tell, Lapcharoensap manages to create a vivid scene and strike a chord with the reader. "Priscilla the Cambodian" is also about class differences within Thailand, although here the split is between native Thais and Cambodian refugees. The story follows two young boys who live in an unfinished middle-class development adjacent to a tiny refugee shantytown. They become friends with a ferocious, goldtoothed tomboy refugee girl named after Priscilla Presley and learn that the refugees aren't awful people. The story ends on a rather dark note, as the local Thai men get all worked up and torch the shantytown.
"Sightseeing" is about the relationship between a young man about to go to college and his mother, who is suddenly going blind. They embark on a last vacation together, so she can finally see the "paradise" that all the foreigners come to visit. It's a fairly sentimental and poignant story, but didn't connect with me as much as others. "Don't Let Me Die Here" is another story about the parent/child relationship, but in this case the narrator is an infirm old American man who's been moved to Thailand to live with his son and his family, including a Thai wife and grandchildren. As the only story narrated by a complete outsider, it feels somewhat out of place and doesn't have the subtlety that the others stories exhibit. Still, the ending scene at a fairground bumper car ride leaves a vivid and uplifting image.
The final story, "Cockfighter", is novella-length, and the only piece narrated by a female. The girl's father is a villager who is engrossed in cockfighting and does reasonably well at it. However, when he beats the psychotic son of the local strongman, things take a turn for the worse. Soon, a Filipino cockfighting expert is brought in, and the father's pride leads the family to catastrophe. The increased length only serves to draw events out longer and doesn't add a great deal to the proceedings. As a whole, however, the collection is outstanding for the freshness of the characters, the humor throughout, and moments of unexpected emotional resonance. The stories capture the small struggles of daily life in Thailand without ever lapsing into despair and stress the importance of family. Deserves to be read by every tourist headed to Thailand and every fan of the short story.