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From Barnes & NobleNew 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.