We gave it a B+
The central characters of Robert Bingham’s fiction are upper-class lowlifes. Children of Cheever country and Salinger’s Manhattan, they dissolve into romanticized dissipation, subsisting on vodka, narcotics, and desperately impulsive sex. Who can blame them? By Bingham’s nihilistic reckoning, all money is filthy, every dream is fleeting, and faith is a sucker’s bet. As you might expect, such work emits a whiff of hipster existentialism, but in Lightning on the Sun that odor is overpowered by cold fumes of sad malice. You could call the book a promising first novel, except that Bingham, scion of the storied Kentucky publishing family, died last November, at 33, after a heroin and alcohol overdose. Wasted promise is a theme of both the author’s work and his life.
In his 1997 story collection, ”Pure Slaughter Value,” Bingham showed a talent for reveling in revilement, but even the best of those bilious bonbons suggested no feeling deeper than jaunty misanthropy. Here he brings some soul — some moral gravity — to his vision of soullessness, and also extends his interest in deviousness to include fiercely crafty plot work. His models are Graham Greene and Robert Stone, writers drawn to the idea of Third World political intrigue as a catalyst to (and metaphor for) personal iniquity. Like Stone’s ”Dog Soldiers,” ”Lightning on the Sun” takes off from the sweaty attempt of a perpetually stoned American to smuggle three kilograms of heroin from Southeast Asia into the U.S.
Bingham’s protagonist is Asher, a thirtysomething slacker who arrived in Cambodia to serve on a UNESCO monument restoration team — ”cleaning bat shit off Khmer statues.” Three and a half years later, he wastes days scooting about intricately corrupt Phnom Penh on his Honda Dream, shuttling among the company of massage-parlor whores, paid tennis partners, and dead-end cynical foreign correspondents. When an ex-girlfriend e-mails him with a scheme for a drug deal, he sees it — with a blend of bleak irony and sinister self-deception — as a chance for redemption. Asher expects to ”return to America as a Merchant Prince.”
Bingham crisply cuts back and forth from the postcolonial miasma of Cambodia to a New York City that’s all posh apartments and scuzzy drug dens, building tension at a handsome pace. He arranges the grabbing and spending of loan sharks, drugs dealers, and plutocrats to create a carnivorous black-market economy that’s both a motor for the plot and a character itself, and, exquisitely, the story line curves in on itself — an incomplete figure eight. Though the author’s control of tone is comparatively unsteady (hard-boiled dialogue sometimes overheats into parody, a prep-school sequence goes stiff), his gimlet eye for detail lends this thriller the weight of reportage.
And weight — that is, the lack of it, the weird sense of feeling unmoored — is tied up with the characters’ malaise. Early on, Asher proclaims, ”I’m into lightness.” Later, he believes that there’s ”an emptiness in his sense of lightness, an emptiness that was vaguely holy.” By contrast, check the end of a scene in which a Cambodian father, having goaded his children into pushing cars across a flooded street for easy money, watches one son disappear into a manhole: ”Now the man stood motionless in the street, staring down at the red five-hundred-riel notes caught in the eddy. Too light to sink, the money circled and circled and circled around.” It is Asher’s predicament to be as adrift as that cash. His lightness is unbearable.