cover image Gold by the Inch

Gold by the Inch

Lawrence Chua. Grove/Atlantic, $20 (192pp) ISBN 978-0-8021-1626-0

A clever challenge to Marguerite Duras's The Lover, this first novel by journalist Chua updates the time-honored themes of empire and eroticism. In a stream of precise prose in which ""even the mess has an intellectual clarity,"" the narrator, a nameless, precocious 23-year-old gay New Yorker, lands in his native Thailand after a 13-year absence and a painful breakup with his American lover. Recovering with drugs and debauchery in the discos of Bangkok, he quickly falls for a beautiful, privileged prostitute named Thon and ends up living with Thon's wealthy family until the affair comes to an inevitable, unhappy end. Chua's prose is sensuous, often feverish, studded with vivid images: we're hearing, the narrator notes, ""the sound of time eating its own children."" Despite the sadness of his subject and the grimness of his historical imagination, the narrator's restless curiosity survives his romantic disillusionments. ""I love you because your body is expensive,"" he says near the end of the novel. In Chua's debut, love always comes with a calculable pricetag, whether or not it can be paid in cash. (Mar.)