Down and Out in Cambodia

By Samantha Gillison '89 / July / August 2000
May 3rd, 2007

Lightning on the Sun by Robert Bingham ’88 (Doubleday, 288 pages, $23.95).

Desperately down and out in Phnom Penh, Asher is the Generation-X, expatriate hero of Lightning on the Sun, the first novel by the late Robert Bingham '88. Asher's life is a complete shambles. He sees only one way out: buy five kilos of the premium-grade heroin that abounds on the streets of the Cambodian capital and turn it around for a quick, huge profit in the States. With the help of his former girlfriend Julie, Asher concocts a plan to get the drugs back to the United States, thus setting in motion the wheels of this compelling, meditative thriller.

With nods to Graham Greene and Robert Stone, Bingham, whom I'd gotten to know well after we'd both graduated from Brown, takes us on a gripping, often grinding, tour of the modern expatriate world in Southeast Asia. It's a place of disillusioned, dissolute Westerners - journalists, glorified tourists, and nongovernmental organization workers, many of whom are in over their heads and unprepared for the political and economic realities of the war-scarred country they are supposed to be working to improve. Bingham, who traveled frequently to Cambodia and had recently bought an apartment in Phnom Penh, clearly loved the city. His descriptions of it are visceral and evocative: "The bats rose up black against the vermilion roof of the National Museum, a Halloween pictorial, a horde of flying freakery, kinetically connected, swooning above his head before they disappeared in the direction of the river."

As beautifully written as Lightning on the Sun often is, the book also makes clear that Bingham, the scion of a Southern newspaper family, was an acute and self-aware observer of other people's self-deceptions. Rather than recoil from the moral dilemmas that come with being a Westerner in Southeast Asia, he seems to gleefully embrace them. Bingham writes with brutal frankness about journalists who make Faustian bargains to get their stories, as well as about heroin use and alcohol abuse, the nature of love and sex, and the nagging sense of futility that a privileged upbringing can bestow on the children of the American upper-middle class. The expatriate characters in Lightning on the Sun are a long way from home, and the distance seems to free them from their best ideas of themselves.

In order to get his heroin back to the United States, Asher picks an unsuspecting American journalist, Reese, as his drug mule. We follow Reese back to Manhattan, watch him check into the Gramercy Park Hotel, meet Julie, and travel up to his old prep school (the Groton-like "Grove") to give a lecture about his work as a journalist in Cambodia. It is through Reese that we see the expat's sense of the surreal as he revisits the sights of his American boyhood. The class strictures that relegate "townies" to jobs at the pizza parlor and the Whit Stilman-esque sadness of friends and classmates whose lives have stalled since graduating from prep school seem only to further divorce Reese from the shattered remnants of his past.

When Bingham's 1997 collection of short stories, Pure Slaughter Value, was published, it earned him comparisons to John Cheever and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The collection's taut, sorrowful narratives detailed the intricacies of a generation of privileged young adults who looked, often drunkenly and mostly desperately, for meaning in their lives. The stories in Pure Slaughter Value are slow-paced, but they are filled with a restrained, deeply felt emotion. Lightning on the Sun, by contrast, is a thriller. Its psychological core is worked out in the structure of the narrative, rather than in the minds of its characters. But like the novels of Graham Greene, Lightning on the Sun transcends its genre with beautifully written scenes and sentences that convey its sorrow and tentative hope.

Near the end of the novel, when the horrifying, inevitable conclusion is within smelling distance, Bingham shows us the possibility of salvation for Asher flickering in the distance: "The three hostages whined up the mountain road on the backs of motorbikes.... As the road leveled off there arrived a series of bombed-out houses and then, in the distance, came, of all things, a church." Few characters in Lightning on the Sun are able to think clearly about the future, however. The book's ruminations about what's to come are nothing short of heartbreaking in light of Bingham's untimely, accidental death by a heroin overdose last November. In retrospect, such passages as Reese's thoughts about an old friend on their trip up to "Grove" are haunting: "As for his old friend, well, the guy had lost his grit. The Weatherly of their rowing life together was gone, and in his place there was only the emptiness, the ambiguity of adult life and a divorce."

The ultimate scene of the novel, which brings the saga of Asher and Julie to a brilliantly realized if unbearably painful crescendo, is powerful and subtle. With an ending as intense as those of the great works of expat writing that Bingham loved, Lightning on the Sun is a beautiful book filled with sadness: it promised great things from an extremely talented writer.

Samantha Gillison is the author of The Undiscovered Country.

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July / August 2000