A Charismatic Hero Crashes in Cambodia

Lightning on the Sun , by Robert Bingham. Doubleday, 291 pages, $24.

Tough, edgy, messy, sexy Asher, the hero of Lightning on the Sun , might have been mine, too, if I were younger, hipper. But he belongs to Robert Bingham, who died of an overdose last November at the age of 33, five months before the publication of this, his first novel.

Asher does drugs, drinks vodka for breakfast and frequents prostitutes, but he is also kind to the kids begging in the streets of Phnom Penh and to the “moto” driver who waits patiently all night for him, and he appreciates a beautiful sunset behind Angkor Thom. Also, Asher is brave. He chases a very bad guy who has thrown a hand grenade into the crowd, almost getting killed in the process (Asher is pistol-whipped), then rips up his The Young and the Restless T-shirt to make tourniquets for the wounded: “The sugarcane lady’s stall had been blown to bits. She was lying inside her cart with her lower intestines, big bubbling worms, crawling out of her stomach.”

Bingham is adept at evoking both the city of Phnom Penh and the post-Vietnam War era in Cambodia: the political chaos, the greedy Chinese businessmen, the kinky massage parlors, the weird and desultory lives of the expats, the capricious ex-Khmer Rouge soldiers or bandits (often one and the same) who arbitrarily set up roadblocks. Also, the stultifying heat as well as the heart-wrenching beauty of the country: “Boat lights cast dim jewels onto the Tonle Sap River, and the air smelled faintly of diesel. Across the way was a small abandoned island where Buddhists had taken to celebrating an obscure holiday. There was one light on the island and a series of saffron-colored flags could be seen flapping gently in the wind. Directly below on the street the cyclo and moto drivers waited and churned.” Or again, “The horizon was a pencil-thin line of diluted red, barely illuminating the green of the distant rice paddies. Weak blood, thought Asher, a late-innings sundown.” The corruption and lawlessness of the country are well rendered by a wonderful scene in which a sleazy Cambodian tycoon shoots out a plane’s wheels in a fit of pique because the airline has lost his luggage; the war-torn land is brought into focus by the image of an untended cow heedlessly grazing in a minefield.

The plot of Lightning on the Sun revolves around a drug heist that goes wrong for the wrong reasons, then turns into a nasty hostage situation. Asher, who has spent time in Cambodia doing various jobs, is now broke and ready to come home, so he contacts his old girlfriend, Julie G-Spot (bad name), a waitress in a New York nightclub, and together they devise a get-rich-quick deal. Part of the success of the deal hinges on Reese, a journalist in Cambodia with whom Asher plays tennis and who also plays the straight man to Asher’s craziness–Reese is the one who has to get the heroin safely into the States.

When the action follows Reese, everything seems predictable or slightly silly, or both: He goes back to his old prep school in New England and gives a drunken speech about being a correspondent; he visits the Racquet Club in Manhattan, where he rows the new Concept II ergometer side by side with a fit George Plimpton, then plays a quick game of court tennis, then backgammon; he gets chased through the city by a midget called Glen. Julie G-Spot (not just a bad, an awful name), who joins in the fun, also lacks Asher’s charisma.

Julie’s good-looking but has “some miles under the hood for her age.” She, too, is brave. She double-crosses the midget, Glen, and pulls off the drug deal herself. She drives to Harlem with the stash between her legs (it now weighs two kilos more, resourceful Julie having added cornstarch) while quoting William Blake to herself (“marks of weariness, marks of woe”). When Julie confronts some Harlem drug lords–she compares them to the Assassini–Bingham sounds the right note of murderous authenticity, but the scene does not have the same menace or sense of randomness as the scenes of confrontation set in Cambodia.

Bingham displays a flair for mildly Hemingwayesque generalities that sound insightful and probably are not. Take, for example: “None of the Cambodians he had played [tennis] with came to net. It wasn’t in their game. As the balls flew by Asher wondered why. It had something to do with trauma.” Or: “She’d admired his oscillations between maudlin introspection and brutal passion. Haitians, they turned on a dime.” And again: ” ‘A lake,’ whispered Julie. ‘Not a loud lake but a quiet one; oh, honey, that would be great. I need a lake right now.’” And, finally, there are several instances when Mr. Bingham–to use his word– blows a nice description such as this: “Moonlight was coming in off a side terrace and the trees outside blew in the wind, splashing strange silver onto her dark hair and heavenly breasts.” Heavenly? Laziness or, one suspects, too much of a rush.

The second half of the novel is the best. The action speeds up and the suspense kicks in. Reese comes to life at last and stirs things up with the help of a resourceful aide who knows just when to hand him a Xanax. Better still, one suddenly cares a lot about Asher. Held hostage and faced with the worst-case scenario, Asher, true to form, remains irreverent and rebellious. He keeps up the jokes, shares cigarettes with his captors.

The novel’s end is both shocking and moving, and one cannot help but grieve at the cruelty and randomness of it all and mourn Asher’s failure. Despite all the cockiness, all the jokes, all the macho stuff, Lightning on the Sun is about desperation, cruelty and failure, the dark, bad side of the American dream. Asher is preoccupied with death; he has a conscious or not-so-conscious death wish: “‘Go ahead,’ said Asher. ‘Do it. Off me, baby. Off me.’” How many times in these pages is a gun put to his head? Twice, three times? Julie tells him: “You always think you are going to die, but the only person who’s going to kill you is yourself.” Sad but true. And one cannot help but be reminded of Robert Bingham, the author, and mourn him, too.