Lightning on the Sun

Robert Bingham, Author
Robert Bingham, Author Doubleday Books $23.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-385-48856-3
Paperback - 304 pages - 978-0-385-48868-6
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An American expat in Cambodia with a burgeoning drug problem--and deepening debts to a murderous Phnom Penh loan shark--tries to smuggle three kilos of heroin to his ex-girlfriend, a ""lapsed Harvard graduate"" and stripper in New York City, by enlisting the unwitting help of a preppy newspaper journalist in this engrossing, posthumous debut. Asher has come to Phnom Penh with UNESCO, hoping to put as much distance as possible between himself and Julie, the love of his life. Now she's the only one who has both the connections and the desire to save him. But after Asher tricks Reese, a respectable tennis club acquaintance (he ""looked like the drunk American in La Dolce Vita"") into taking the drugs through U.S. customs, the plan starts to unravel, thanks to a series of suspenseful, stylishly written double crosses that take the action from Gramercy Park to Harlem and from smalltown New England back to Cambodia, where Bingham delivers an equally stylish ending. As in his story collection (Pure Slaughter Value), Bingham stands out here as a hip traditionalist, elegantly updating the conventions of Graham Greene and Robert Stone, and as a knowing chronicler of high-WASP misbehavior. For all its wit and verve, though, the novel is impossible to read outside the shadow of Bingham's own death, last November, from a heroin overdose. It's not just that substance abuse looms so large in the lives of all his main characters, but that underneath their jaundiced dialogue and flippant derring-do--""Friends of friends had been found dead in their beds. Julie got the bill, rolled, and snorted it up""--they seem frightened of, and trapped in, their own recklessness. This is a melancholy triumph from a writer who might have become one of the strongest of his generation. (May) FYI: Bingham worked as a reporter for the Cambodian Daily and was a founding editor of the literary magazine Open City.
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