Reviewed by Christopher G.
Ever since Paul Theroux’s
classic Saint Jack, with its Singapore, appeared in 1972, and Jack
Flower uttered the famous line that “it is kinda hot,” the idea of the
oppressive heat and steamy nights in the tropics has become the weather report
in contemporary novels set in Southeast Asia. The heat drives people mad; it
makes them careless, languid, and bleeds them of energy. The personal cost to
live an expat life in Southeast Asia has been a theme for a couple of decades in
Bangkok is an idea with
multiple landscapes, some of them imagined, some real, and more than a few
caught in the no man’s land between the two. The expat territory is as varied as
Thailand itself with features running from valleys, rivers, mountains, field,
pastures, scrubland, and beaches. There is no representative expat. Nor could
there be with people from China, Canada, Norway, England, America, Nigeria,
Burma, Cambodia, India, Denmark to mention just a few of expats that form
enclaves in Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand. No one will ever write the
definitive expat novel. One would need to switch to writing an ethnographic
encyclopedia. Such a book would have a dozen readers.
In Tim Hallinan’s The
Hot Countries, he does what the rest of us who write novels about
expats in the tropics do: we show up at the mine face where these expats live,
work, play and die, looking for the rare nuggets buried inside. Hallinan’s
series, set in Bangkok featuring Poke Rafferty, has produced an extraordinary
cast of American expats whose lives intersect at the Expat Bar. Rafferty and his
fellow expats carry a heavy Cold Countries cultural cargo strapped to their
souls. Hallinan focuses his novelist’s eye on the busy intersection where Hot
Countries and Cold Countries cultures collide in Bangkok, where everyone is
running the red light and driving on the pavements. The readers in the front row
seat watch the ice melt as they adapt to Thai life.
Poke Rafferty, an American
from Lancaster, California, has settled into expat life as a travel journalist.
He’s an old Asia Hand and he and his gang remember the life of expats when
Bernard Trink wrote his weekly column for the Bangkok Post. While
Bangkok has moved on, Poke Rafferty and his friends continue to live on the
margin. Poke showcases the low-budget expat life weighed down by demands of an
ex-bargirl wife named Rose and an adopted daughter name Miaow (the Thai nickname
for ‘Cat’). Miaow, a street kid, carries the damage of abandonment. Seven years
earlier Poke Rafferty adopted her. Poke’s world revolves his family and his
friends. Within this circle, Hallinan excels at allowing a free-flow of ideas
between his characters, which ably colour their emotions, foreshadow their
motives, and limen their beliefs.
His friends have secrets
and painful pasts. Some like Wallace are haunted by their experience during the
Vietnam War. Wallace’s Vietnam experience, along with others he served with,
figure into the mystery. The 1960s in Bangkok and, in particular, the Golden
Mile, the hedonistic playground, where young American GIs left the jungles of
the Vietnam war for R&R, are stylishly imagined and with a genuine feeling
for the era.
The Hot Countries
takes time to establish the networked interaction inside the family members and
friends, showing their weaknesses, loyalties, foibles, egos, doubts, and
defenses. Poke’s wife for seven years, is three-months pregnant, but refuses to
have an ultra-sound to confirm whether she’s carrying twins. Their 14-year-old
adopted daughter, who’d been abandoned by her parents, is addicted to British TV
(particularly period dramas), books and celebrities. This isn’t a conventional
mystery. Instead of a series of actions and clues, Hallinan allows the reader
time to explore and understand the full range of cultural difference that caused
difficulties for his characters. Poke’s friendship with Thai cop Arthit (and his
family) brings to the story the Thai threads to the mysterious game of power,
culture and thinking.
The centrifugal forces
start to spin inside Rafferty’s world, gathering warp speed with Arthur Varney
unexpected arrival. By this time, we know what is at stake for the characters
and the limits of their life. The mystery and thriller elements take over and
push against the walls of those limits. The heart of the mysterious Arthur
Varney, his connection to Rafferty, a young luk-krueng Thai girl named
Treasure and Treasure’s dead father. Varney shows up at the Expat Bar and hands
Poke Rafferty a number he written down: 3,840,00.00. It was the US dollar amount
that had disappeared from Haskell Murphy’s house the night Poke killed Murphy
and the house was destroyed in a massive explosion. Poke managed to pull one
case containing $640,000 and has hidden it in his Bangkok apartment under the
floor. The rest of the loot has, we presume, gone up in smoke. But Varney, by
his very presence, suggests he believes Rafferty has the whole amount and he’s
come to Bangkok to get that money. And for his partner in crime’s daughter,
Treasure’s father was
killed by Rafferty. He was a hardcore, dangerous criminal. He dragged his
daughter through Southeast Asia. Treasure was at the scene the night that Poke
killed her father. She approved, thinking he’d done her a favor. Rafferty
secured a safe place in a shelter for Treasure, and is waiting for her to become
older before handing over the money he took that night from her blazing house.
Varney scares Treasure, causing her to panic. She presumes that he’s come not
only for the money but for her, and she carries the memory of her father warning
that if anything happened to him, Varney would own her. Like Miaow, Treasure is
psychologically damaged, and we learn a about expat life as Poke balances his
role as her self-appointed guardian and his family.
Rafferty makes it his
mission to find Varney in Patpong and resolve their outstanding issues one way
or another. And Varney is seeking to get Rafferty’s attention, including
murdering a street kid. As in all good mysteries, who you are looking for and
what you find are often two different things. And the person you start out
chasing after, you end up taking steps to avoid him finding you and your family.
Rafferty’s life and times show the melting point when the Hot Country and Cold
Country make him shiver and sweat at the same time. That may indeed be the
expat’s fate. He loses his ability to know how to culturally dress for the bad
weather blowing his direction.
The Hot Countries
is an absorbing and rewarding look at life in a hot country expat sub-culture.
Poke Rafferty’s humanity, commitment and ingenuity are rare qualities and they
allow him to adapt and survive in his life as an expat. Any reader can forgive
the odd slip or mistake in the narrative flow when he or she is in the hands of
a talented author like Hallinan. All of us (including myself) who write about
Thailand, make them. It is what makes books and us human.
The characters in The
Hot Countries are finely detailed along with their vulnerabilities, tragic
flaws, and mutual dependence. Hallinan takes us inside their dreams, nightmares,
fears, and hopes, making them larger than fiction. They are characters that will
stay with you. Hallinan knows how to bring memorable fictional characters to
life. His characters cling onto the edge of a bleak, hardscrabble expat group as
if they’d been tossed from a life raft into the jaws of raging rapids. Poke
Rafferty is the one person they trust to conjure up the life vests and guide
them safely to shore. The Hot Countries hurls you down those rapid and
when you emerge at the end, you will know that you’ve been on a grand adventure
with characters you care about.
G. Moore’s latest novel is Crackdown.