Lightning on the Sun: A Novel

Lightning on the Sun: A Novel

by Robert Bingham

View All Available Formats & Editions

From the highly acclaimed author of Pure Slaughter Value comes this latter-day literary noir about an ex-pat in Cambodia eager to get home but taking all the wrong turns.

Asher went to Cambodia to get away from Julie, his Harvard grad ex-girlfriend currently tending bar in a topless joint in New York. But when his UNESCO work cleaning bat dung from Khmer


From the highly acclaimed author of Pure Slaughter Value comes this latter-day literary noir about an ex-pat in Cambodia eager to get home but taking all the wrong turns.

Asher went to Cambodia to get away from Julie, his Harvard grad ex-girlfriend currently tending bar in a topless joint in New York. But when his UNESCO work cleaning bat dung from Khmer statues is finished, and he decides on a dicey heroin scheme as his means to get home with plenty of money to spare, it's Julie whose help he solicits. She agrees, but plans go dangerously awry frighteningly fast. A pulsating plot and precise literary prose make Lightning on the Sun a startlingly compelling and strangely poetic tale.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“[A] smart, stinging literary thriller reminiscent of Graham Greene and Robert Stone.”–San Francisco Chronicle

“[A] gripping literary thriller…. Bingham effortlessly builds suspense.”–Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“A powerful story about desire, greed, and the hope for redemption in a fallen world.”–Alan Cheuse

B& Editor
New York City -- or Bust!
Lightning on the Sun is a posthumously published first novel by Robert Bingham, a gifted, tragic figure who suffered a fatal heroin overdose in 1999, shortly after completing this book. A largely compelling, sometimes derivative account of a squalid drug deal that goes terribly wrong, Bingham's novel is set primarily in the vividly evoked Cambodia of the mid-1990s, a country that provides the perfect setting for this sharply observed story of greed, faithlessness, and corruption.

Bingham's publishers have compared this novel to the works of Graham Greene, who excelled at depicting burnt-out cases coming to grief in exotic corners of the world. But the major influence behind Lightning on the Sun -- its literary and spiritual ancestor -- is Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers, a powerfully written thriller in which a stolen cache of heroin becomes a tangible symbol of the poisoned legacy of Vietnam. Taking his cue -- and much of his plot -- from Stone, Bingham builds his novel around a disaffected young American adrift in Cambodia, looking for the one big score that will turn his life around.

The American in question is Asher, a lost soul of 30 or so who came to Southeast Asia as part of a UNESCO team doing preservation work on Cambodia's ancient monuments. Unemployed in the wake of the UN's departure, and infected by the casual corruption of life in Phnom Penh, Asher loses his bearings. Together with his ex-girlfriend Julie -- a Harvard-educated underachiever currently employed as a bartender in a low-rent Manhattan strip joint -- Asher concocts a plan to purchase a large quantity of cheap heroin on the Cambodian black market and sell it, at an enormous profit, on the streets of New York. Borrowing $3,000 -- and putting himself dangerously in debt to a Phnom Penh loan shark -- Asher acquires several kilos of uncut heroin and ships it to the states in care of an unsuspecting journalist -- and blandly solid "citizen" -- named Reese.

Once the heroin reaches America, everything goes wrong. Changing her plans at the last minute, Julie double-crosses her primary investor, a sleazy "dwarf" named Glen, intercepts the shipment, and sells the drugs herself. After killing the enraged Glen in self-defense, she flees to Cambodia, bringing almost $80,000 in blood money with her. Her long-delayed reunion with Asher is played out against a backdrop of violence, political turmoil, and endemic national corruption. Implicitly embodying the author's belief that nothing good can -- or should -- arise from such a morally compromised transaction, Asher and Julie find themselves caught in a series of events that lead, inexorably, to a bitterly ironic denouement.

For a great deal of the early going, Lightning on the Sun borrows far too heavily from its primary model, and suffers from the inevitable comparison. Dog Soldiers is easily the better of the two novels, and its oblique, nightmarish portrait of the consequences of a disastrous military policy is as effective today as it was more than 25 years ago. Bingham's novel is, by contrast, a young man's book. It relies a bit excessively on coincidence and is filled with moments of arch, overly self-conscious irony. Occasional passages seem under-developed and have about them an unfinished, first-draft quality, a problem that might have been eliminated had Bingham been granted a little more time to polish and revise.

That said, Lightning on the Sun is still the clear product of a talented, ambitious novelist who could have been a contender. Bingham fills his first and only novel with striking turns of phrase, close observation, a keen sense of place, and a comprehensive atmosphere of moral failure. The result is an authoritative portrait of the Anglo/American expatriate community in Southeast Asia, and a frequently frightening evocation of the harsh realities of daily life in modern Cambodia. Robert Bingham had the voice, the eye, and the narrative instincts of a born writer. Given the time to develop his gifts and assimilate his influences, he might have become a major force in the literature of the 21st century. That, of course, is never going to happen now, and we are all a little poorer as a result.

--Bill Sheehan

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Asher is an expatriate American living in Cambodia in this first novel by Bingham, who died last year. A former UNESCO employee who stayed after the UNESCO monument preservation work ended, Asher is at the end of his rope financially and spiritually. Looking to finance his way back to America, he masterminds a heroin deal with the help of Julie, his ex-girlfriend in New York, and enlists Reese, a straight-arrow journalist, to carry the package from Cambodia. Things go wrong from the start, however, when soldiers rob him on his way to buy the drug, forcing him to borrow money from a loan shark. Then Julie double-crosses her boss, the person for whom the package is intended, putting Reese's life in danger. Whether writing of exotic Phnom Penh or the streets of New York, Bingham portrays a world of absolute corruption where moral compromise is the key to survival. Recommended for larger public libraries.--Lawrence Rungren, Merrimack Valley Lib. Consortium, Andover, MA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Michiko Kakutani
[A] compelling first novel...Bingham has written a gripping literary thriller -- a precocious debut novel and an eloquent punctuation point to a sadly short career.
The New York Times
Bingham, who died last year of an accidental overdose, was at home in the abyss, and he left behind a wickedly true telling of the world he knew.
Stacey D'Erasmo
[A]s an artist he was funny, mordant and quick. His brand of black comedy is curiously tender . . . Robert Bingham will be missed. Good satirists are hard to find, and a true gift for darkness is rare.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
The first and last novel by the highly regarded short-story writer (Pure Slaughter Value, 1997) and founder-editor of Open City. Bingham died last year, at age 33, but left behind this (apparently) finished volume, a dark, brooding thriller that draws heavily on his two years as a reporter for the Cambodian [CHECK]. The three key protagonists are one American innocent and two who are not so innocent. Desperate to leave Cambodia after a highly unsatisfying stint working with UNESCO restoring the country's ancient temples, Asher plans a drug deal with his nervy, dropout girlfriend, Julie. The strategy: he'll buy a large quantity of pure heroin, which she'll sell at an enormous profit, through her sleaze-bag boss at the strip joint where she tends bar. All the two need is an unwitting sucker to bring the dope into the US. Enter Reese, a talented journalist who's going home to give a lecture at his old prep school and attend his sister's wedding. Everything, however, quickly spins out of control: Asher is robbed and uses a loan shark to raise the capital for the buy; Julie, in a fit of paranoia about her employer, steals the drugs from Reese, who now finds himself being hunted by a stranger for no apparent reason. Eventually the action returns to Cambodia and a brutal yet all-too-believable climax. The author was clearly in the thrall of Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers (albeit with echoes of Graham Greene, Malraux, and Conrad), but Lightning's first third is more pretentious and less focused than that brilliant work. Bingham lacks Stone's sense of the evil at work in the universe, as well as his precision and crackling dialogue. As the narrative continues, though, it picks upsteamand has its own power. As subtle as a blunt-force trauma. Not without flaws, but a work of some promise that, sadly, can never be fulfilled.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.19(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.69(d)

Read an Excerpt

chapter one

Asher waited for the bats. The little rats, he thought, where the fuck were they? All day long the bats took shelter in the eaves of the National Museum, waiting for dusk, waiting for the heat to die. Asher paced. The bats were late, and to be late on this particular evening was unsettling. Bad luck, bad karma, bad what? He did not know. He paced his porch, sweating. Asher's porch had a commanding view of the National Museum. It faced east and received good light in the late afternoon. At around six o'clock, give or take twenty minutes depending on the season, the bats took to the local skies in a great cloud of squealing motion.

When it came to his life in Phnom Penh, there were few things of which Asher was proud. One was his third-floor porch with its view of the museum and its back gardens; another was his Honda Dream; and the last was a rule he'd never broken: no drinking until the bats flew. He checked his watch. It was a little past six-thirty.

"Fuck," said Asher.

This evening was of considerable consequence for him and he badly needed a drink. It was late March and windless. The dry heat of January and February had intensified into stupefying weather, and though they were more than two months away, already he'd begun to pray for the rains.

Asher had originally arrived in Phnom Penh as part of a UNESCO restoration team. His first assignment had been the thankless chore of cleaning bat shit off Khmer statues housed in the National Museum. Back then he had been no friend to the bats and their shit. He'd quickly fallen into the camp of "preservation experts" that wanted to see the bats driven from the rafters. His ally in this camp was a Pakistani who would smoke anything handed him, and who like Asher had washed up in Phnom Penh for easy UN money and to get away from a woman.

It evolved that the French preservation community was quite fond of the bats and their shit. From their UNESCO compound computers they spewed memos in nearly perfect English arguing that to rob the bats of their "indigenous setting" would be cruel and unusual. Apparently the National Museum bats weren't just any bats. They were a rare species. Besides, the French argued, it was charming how a handful of the natives were making a good living selling organic fertilizer derived from the bat shit. The debate raged for nearly eight months and engendered a surprising amount of ill will and accusatory letters to the editor in the two local English-language newspapers. The French eventually prevailed, and Asher and his ally Alex were kicked up north to the town of Siem Reap, where they helped reconstruct the earthquake-damaged Elephant Wall, an infuriatingly complicated Khmer bulwark that had fallen into several hundred pieces some centuries ago. The pay was better in Siem Reap, but eventually the two friends, Asher and Alex, fell out with their project supervisor, a pedophile from Rotterdam with a yen for his young Khmer employees. Alex went into the hotel business and Asher into almost nothing at all.

Through his Nikon binoculars Asher watched a lovely Khmer woman he'd nicknamed Lovely Lane Lily sweep the pathways that meandered through the museum's gardens. Ordinarily this view of Lily would be standard enough but tonight he needed her more than ever because her serenity was a powerful antidote to the transaction upon which he was about to embark. Lily was as stunning as ever. She wore a baby-blue dress and looked like a sexy nurse. It had white buttons down the front and was cut fairly low to the breasts by Khmer standards. It had a nice slit at the back. Asher watched Lily sweep. Unlike Asher and the country at large, Lily was at peace, at peace with herself and her work. Asher wondered if she'd ever slept with one of King Sihanouk's many offspring. The Royalists and their FUNCINPEC party—oh, how they'd blown it. It was really kind of sad to see how that murderous bastard of a fascist dictator Hun Sen had muscled them out of power despite the Royalists' victory in the UN-sponsored election. The only ministries FUNCINPEC now controlled were Tourism and Culture. The National Museum was one of the few undisputed bastions of Royalist patronage. The employees were said to be hired for their looks and nepotistic connections to the royal family. It was considered a good job.

Asher put the binoculars away and wiped the sweat from his brow. He walked into his kitchen, drew a bottle of Stolichnaya from his freezer, and returned to the porch. Tonight it would be necessary not to get drunk. He poured a measure into his water glass and waited. The city was nearly silent but for the distant hissing of street stalls and the clattering yelps of his landlord's children playing soccer on the street below. Heads of green palm trees were catching the orange light from the river. It was a windless dusk.

Nervous and impatient, Asher lit a cigarette. The day had dragged horrendously. He'd had breakfast at a noodle stall at the foot of Wat Phnom, where he'd been harangued by street urchins and amputees. An elderly man had offered him an elephant ride. The elephant of Wat Phnom was drugged and lumbered around the circular hill occasionally carrying intrepid tourists.

Asher had arrived at the Bank Indo-Suez five minutes before opening. Standing in the blinding courtyard light he'd felt stupid and criminal. The guards had eyed him suspiciously. Phnom Penh was a secretive town, and when hungover, Asher was susceptible to the distrusts and paranoias that informed the place. The bank had been his only errand of the day, and with it over well before noon, he'd had nothing to do but return to his apartment and wait—wait and try not to drink. When he stood up to put something on his stereo, the bats suddenly took to the skies.

"There you are, you little rats," he said, draining his glass. "I don't know what I see in you."

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. With three hours to kill he paced and refilled his glass. A massage; he couldn't believe he hadn't thought of it before. Of all hours this one was tailormade for a massage. He lit a stale, two-day-old joint and listened to the seeds crackle and pop. The marijuana in Cambodia was as legally bountiful as it was weak. It was necessary to wet one's papers with hash oil if one wanted to get high, but Asher's hash oil had run out months ago. No matter; it would be necessary to balance drugs tonight. Balance was the theme. Nimbleness and balance. If he wanted to come out on top, nothing must dominate. He stubbed out the joint and went inside to change. His bedroom smelled of himself, of his sweaty socks and months of compounded cigarette smoke. On his bedside table sat a high-end tourist replica of the four-headed statue that guarded the ancient city of Angkor Thom. Four Buddha faces in the likeness of God King Jayararman VII stared in four directions.

"North, south, east, west," said Asher. "Watch it."

Typically Asher took his four-headed Buddha bust as a discourse on perspective. It was a reminder, this bust, that most problems could be solved if approached from varying perspectives, from the perspective, say, of one's enemy. "Know thy enemy, know thy self," that kind of thing. Tonight, Asher touched the lips of the God King and went with a more literal translation. He went with vigilance. The heads had been used as watch towers to guard the sacred city. There were unreliable people in Phnom Penh, people to watch out for in all directions.

His bed was a mess, sheets crinkled and soiled. It occurred to him that it had been months since anyone but himself had frequented this room. White, or what the Khmers referred to as barang, Phnom Penh society had begun to bore him with its predictability. It was dominated by journalists who indulged in all the clich*s of their trade. Asher was friendly with a handful but collectively called them "journos" behind their backs. These journos seemed primarily to interview one another, and drank at the same bars. If desired dead, they would be easy to find. He pulled on his jeans and took a gray button-down shirt from a closet hanger. Then came athletic socks and a navy-blue windbreaker. From beneath his bed he took out a worn leather satchel that had been left behind by a Flemish World Health Organization field coordinator, a terrible house guest. In the bag was three thousand dollars in cash, wrapped in three equal bundles.

At the top of the stairs he slipped on his sneakers and clambered down to the street-level workshop of his landlord, Mr. Hang. Mr. Hang specialized in the mass production of canvases depicting iconic Khmer landmarks for the burgeoning hotel trade. Asher suspected Mr. Hang for an opium smoker but had no evidence to back up his suspicion. Tonight Mr. Hang was swaying softly in a hammock listening to Khmer music on the radio. One of Asher's arrangements with Mr. Hang was that he was allowed to keep his Honda Dream parked in the landlord's workshop. It cost him a few thousand extra riel a month, but he was glad of the security. He wheeled his bike out the front door, kick-started it, and was shortly on the move.

The evening, as usual, calmed him. There was something special in the night air, a feeling of lassitude and excitement that endeared him to the city. You made your own arrangements here, and the outcome was your personal pleasure or problem. It was a city of twists, a town of secrets, a wonderfully lawless place, a good city for a motorbike. He took a right along the river. The Foreign Correspondents Club was alight from above. He could hear the din of chatter. The journos and their dates were in high cocktail hour, going at it again. Asher shook his head. The female AP correspondent was said to be dating the new Reuters guy. They gave each other scoops, so to speak. Asher took another right onto the road fronting the Royal Palace. It was a wide, low-lying boulevard that got swamped in the rainy season and was often impassable. Tonight it was dry and uncrowded. Guards in khaki uniforms stood idly at intervals, leaning on their guns, biding time by the palace wall. On his left Asher passed the Renakse Hotel, which had recently opened an outdoor restaurant he had no interest in frequenting. Gaudy high-wattage Christmas lights were strung up over the bar, illuminating the ads for Angkor and Tiger beer.

At Independence Monument he hit a crowded roundabout. The French and their former colonies. . . . This was Phnom Penh's equivalent of the circle surrounding the Arc de Triomphe. Built in the Haussmann style, it was a heavily trafficked affair with a tall, honeycombed monument in the middle. Asher found it difficult to manage. There were no rules at Independence Monument. He was nearly sideswiped by a white Toyota with tinted windows. Asher cursed the vehicle and was glad to finally be heading down Norodom Boulevard, one of the major thoroughfares off the circle, which led to many things, including Mr. Hawk's massage parlor.

The lobby of the Apsara was furnished with black leatherette love seats. Unzipping his windbreaker, Asher felt goose bumps from the air-conditioning. A fresh breeze had perhaps never visited the Apsara. There were mirrors on doors, mirrors on the back walls and on various tables. There was a full-length mirror behind the bar. A few of the ladies of the establishment looked into their own handheld mirrors. They were all huddled together inside a Plexiglas box at the far end of the room. Mr. Hawk greeted Asher with his usual obsequious affability.

"You have come later than usual but still you have come," he said. "It is good to see you, Asher. Would you like a beer?"

"Perhaps afterward, Mr. Hawk."

A massage, after all, is a banal enough private moment for a man and not terribly worthy of exploration. Asher chose number 36, a good running-back number, and disappeared into one of those soiled little windowless rooms.

Upon hearing the good news that UN personnel were to be given $120 per diem, Nuon Hauk, known as Mr. Hawk to the Westerners who knew him, flew to Saigon, where he spent several days recruiting country girls off his cousin, a pimp from Cholon. As luck would have it, his cousin was in debt to a consortium of Chinese businessmen who'd lent the man a considerable sum of money to acquire virgins. When word got around that many of the so-called virgins were not virgins at all but had instead used pig's blood, the cousin considered suicide. Not only had he lost much face, but his loan was shortly called due. And so Mr. Hawk, who had nothing but secret disdain for the extravagant falsities of the virgin trade, picked the girls up on the cheap. Fortune had smiled on him, and before he returned to Phnom Penh, he paid a visit to the Phung Son pagoda in Cholon, where with trembling hands he lit stack after stack of votive dummy money in thanks.

And so in those halcyon days of the UN presence in Cambodia, the Apsara prospered. A trickle of overweight Finns and Danes were the first regulars. They were the most disinclined to the heat and seemed to take just as much refuge in Mr. Hawk's air-conditioning as they did in their fifteen-dollar massages. They were followed by Russian helicopter pilots. The Russians were known for their criminal sociability and saw their stay in Cambodia as a financial boondoggle. They were thieves, and the UN was a great unguarded henhouse for the fox. No one seemed to own anything. All of it, the Land Cruisers, the video cameras, the demining equipment, the mobile phones, the cases of canned goods, the frozen steaks—they were all up for grabs. Sometimes Morris Catering, the UN's food supplier, could be a difficult institution from which to thieve but, Morris aside, pilfering from the UN was like taking candy from a baby. For the Russians the only problem was unloading what they had stolen, and this is where the Apsara came into play.

The local Cambodian powers-that-be in the black market distrusted and feared the Russians. Perhaps they were resentful of the imperial attitude the Russians had taken toward Cambodia in the wake of the Vietnamese invasion. In the 1980s Phnom Penh's streets were filled with drunk Russians, patrons of the occupying Vietnamese. The Russian pilots took a dim view of the indigenous Khmer population and the feeling was returned. Yet the Russians needed a broker they could trust to help them unload the stolen Land Cruisers and other UN paraphernalia. They went to the Tamali Tigers, a close-knit group of Sri Lankan separatists who'd taken up residence in Phnom Penh in order to trade arms. Quantity not quality was what Cambodia was known for in the arms department. There were American grenades and M-16s, Chinese handguns, Vietnamese armored personnel carriers, Russian mines, a wonderful bazaar of Cold War armaments augmented by more modern UN equipment. Supply greatly outstripped demand.

What People are saying about this

Bob Shacochis
Lightning on the Sun slammed into me like no other novel since Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers, and no other expatriate fiction before that since Conrad's Heart of Darkness. It's as if Robert Bingham swallowed the world whole and proceeded to sweat out its wickedness and moral dissolution into literary perfection. In Mr Bingham's whipshaw prose, the underside of the empire that is us -- America in the 90s -- has finally found -- and just as quickly lost -- its truest, most unforgiving voice. Hip, arrogant, brilliantly successful, lethally nihilistic. This novel leaves me in permanent awe, and permanent mourning. — (Bob Shacochis, National Book Award-winning author of Easy In The Islands)
Chris Offutt
Robert Bingham was a young master whose novel -- which reads like a poem and moves like a thriller -- shifts locale with uncompromising light on contemporary life. His characters respond to the world in a way that is both appalling and natural. Bingham's work is the lost heir to Graham Greene and Robert Stone.
— (Chris Offutt, author of Kentucky Straight and The Same River Twice)
Stanley Karnow
Robert Bingham's novel vividly narrates the story of a young American struggling to find himself amid the chaos, corruption and danger that currently pervades Cambodia. It is tragic that Bingham died before he could enjoy the praise he so richly deserves.
— (Stanley Karnow, author of Vietnam)
Robert Stone
Robert Bingham's Lightning on the Sun is a beautifully written tale of adventure in the Conradian tradition. Following that tradition, it treats with moral ambiguity and collapse in fateful tropic places where late imperial Americans and Europeans encounter and continue a degenerate version of the great games of history. Missionaries, do-gooders, criminals and adventurers from the outside prey on and are preyed upon by the inhabitants of the lands they would exploit in a cycle of violence and mutual corruption. Witty, highly sophisticated and richly entertaining, it is bursting with life-affirming energy that overlays a tragic vision. Robert Bingham has given us a superb novel.
P. J. O'Rourke
Terrifying action/pitiful land/pitiable characters/terrible situation -- Aristotle couldn't have asked for a better mix of terror and pity.

Meet the Author

Robert Bingham was the author of the highly praised short story collection Pure Slaughter Value. He held an M.F.A. from Columbia and was a founding editor of the literary magazine Open City. His fiction and nonfiction appeared in The New Yorker, and he worked for two years as a reporter for the Cambodia Daily. He died in 1999.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >