The Washington Post
Sightseeingby Rattawut Lapcharoensap
One of the most widely reviewed debuts of the year, Sightseeing is a masterful story collection by an award-winning young author. Set in contemporary Thailand, these are generous, radiant tales of family bonds, youthful romance, generational conflicts and cultural shiftings beneath the glossy surface of a warm, Edenic setting. Written with exceptional/i>… See more details below
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One of the most widely reviewed debuts of the year, Sightseeing is a masterful story collection by an award-winning young author. Set in contemporary Thailand, these are generous, radiant tales of family bonds, youthful romance, generational conflicts and cultural shiftings beneath the glossy surface of a warm, Edenic setting. Written with exceptional acuity, grace and sophistication, the stories present a nation far removed from its exoticized stereotypes. In the prize-winning opening story "Farangs," the son of a beachside motel owner commits the cardinal sin of falling for a pretty American tourist. In the novella, "Cockfighter," a young girl witnesses her proud father's valiant but foolhardy battle against a local delinquent whose family has a vicious stranglehold on the villagers. Through his vivid assemblage of parents and children, natives and transients, ardent lovers and sworn enemies, Lapcharoensap dares us to look with new eyes at the circumstances that shape our views and the prejudices that form our blind spots. Gorgeous and lush, painful and candid, Sightseeing is an extraordinary reading experience, one that powerfully reveals that when it comes to how we respond to pain, anger, hurt, and love, no place is too far from home.
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Read an Excerpt
By Rattawut Lapcharoensap
Grove PressCopyright © 2005 Rattawut Lapcharoensap
All right reserved.
This is how we count the days. June: the Germans come to the Island-football cleats, big T-shirts, thick tongues-speaking like spitting. July: the Italians, the French, the British, the Americans. The Italians like pad thai, its affinity with spaghetti. They like light fabrics, sunglasses, leather sandals. The French like plump girls, rambutans, disco music, baring their breasts. The British are here to work on their pasty complexions, their penchant for hashish. Americans are the fattest, the stingiest of the bunch. They may pretend to like pad thai or grilled prawns or the occasional curry, but twice a week they need their culinary comforts, their hamburgers and their pizzas. They're also the worst drunks. Never get too close to a drunk American. August brings the Japanese. Stay close to them. Never underestimate the power of the yen. Everything's cheap with imperial monies in hand and they're too polite to bargain. By the end of August, when the monsoon starts to blow, they're all consorting, slapping each other's backs, slipping each other drugs, sleeping with each other, sipping their liquor under the pink lights of the Island's bars. By September they've all deserted, leaving the Island to the Aussies and the Chinese,who are so omnipresent one need not mention them at all.
Ma says, "Pussy and elephants. That's all these people want." She always says this in August, at the season's peak, when she's tired of farangs running all over the Island, tired of finding used condoms in the motel's rooms, tired of guests complaining to her in five languages. She turns to me and says, "You give them history, temples, pagodas, traditional dance, floating markets, seafood curry, tapioca desserts, silk-weaving cooperatives, but all they really want is to ride some hulking gray beast like a bunch of wildmen and to pant over girls and to lie there half-dead getting skin cancer on the beach during the time in between."
We're having a late lunch, watching television in the motel office. The Island Network is showing Rambo: First Blood Part II again. Sylvester Stallone, dubbed in Thai, mows down an entire VC regiment with a bow and arrow. I tell Ma I've just met a girl. "It might be love," I say. "It might be real love, Ma. Like Romeo and Juliet love."
Ma turns off the television just as John Rambo flies a chopper to safety.
She tells me it's just my hormones. She sighs and says, "Oh no, not again. Don't be so naïve," she says. "I didn't raise you to be stupid. Are you bonking one of the guests? You better not be bonking one of the guests. Because if you are, if you're bonking one of the guests, we're going to have to bleed the pig. Remember, luk, we have an agreement."
I tell her she's being xenophobic. I tell her things are different this time. But Ma just licks her lips and says once more that if I'm bonking one of the guests, I can look forward to eating Clint Eastwood curry in the near future. Ma's always talking about killing my pig. And though I know she's just teasing, she says it with such zeal and a peculiar glint in her eyes that I run out to the pen to check on the swine.
I knew it was love when Clint Eastwood sniffed her crotch earlier that morning and the girl didn't scream or jump out of the sand or swat the pig like some of the other girls do. She merely lay there, snout in crotch, smiling that angelic smile, like it was the most natural thing in the world, running a hand over the fuzz of Clint Eastwood's head like he was some pink and docile dog, and said, giggling, "Why hello, oh my, what a nice surprise, you're quite a beast, aren't you?"
I'd been combing the motel beachfront for trash when I looked up from my morning chore and noticed Clint Eastwood sniffing his new friend. An American: Her Budweiser bikini told me so. I apologized from a distance, called the pig over, but the girl said it was okay, it was fine, the pig could stay as long as he liked. She called me over and said I could do the same.
I told her the pig's name.
"That's adorable," she said, laughing.
"He's the best," I said. "Dirty Harry. Fistful of Dollars. The Outlaw Josey Wales. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."
"He's a very good actor."
"Yes. Mister Eastwood is a first-class thespian."
Clint Eastwood trotted into the ocean for his morning bath then, leaving us alone, side-by-side in the sand. I looked to make sure Ma wasn't watching me from the office window. I explained how Clint Eastwood loves the ocean at low tide, the wet sand like a three-kilometer trough of mud. The girl sat up on her elbows, watched the pig, a waterlogged copy of The Portrait of a Lady at her side. She'd just gone for a swim and the beads of water on her navel seemed so close that for a moment I thought I might faint if I did not look away.
"I'm Elizabeth. Lizzie."
"Nice to meet you, Miss Elizabeth," I said. "I like your bikini."
She threw back her head and laughed. I admired the shine of her tiny, perfectly even rows of teeth, the gleam of that soft, rose-colored tongue quivering between them like the meat of some magnificent mussel.
"Oh my," she said, closing that mouth, gesturing with her chin. "I think your pig is drowning."
Clint Eastwood was rolling around where the ocean meets the sand, chasing receding waves, running away from oncoming ones. It's a game he plays every morning, scampering back and forth across the water's edge, and he snorted happily every time the waves knocked him into the foam.
"He's not drowning," I said. "He's swimming."
"I didn't know pigs could swim."
"Clint Eastwood can."
She smiled, a close-mouthed grin, admiring my pig at play, and I would've given anything in the world to see her tongue again, to reach out and sink my fingers into the hollows of her collarbone, to stare at that damp, beautiful navel all day long.
"I have an idea, Miss Elizabeth," I said, getting up, brushing the sand from the seat of my shorts. "This may seem rather presumptuous, but would you like to go for an elephant ride with me today?"
Ma doesn't want me bonking a farang because once, long ago, she had bonked a farang herself, against the wishes of her own parents, and all she got for her trouble was a broken heart and me in return. The farang was a man known to me only as Sergeant Marshall Henderson. I remember the Sergeant well, if only because he insisted I call him by his military rank.
"Not Daddy," I remember him saying in English, my first and only language at the time. "Sergeant. Sergeant Henderson. Sergeant Marshall. Remember you're a soldier now, boy. A spy for Uncle Sam's army."
And during those early years-before he went back to America, promising to send for us-the Sergeant and I would go on imaginary missions together, navigating our way through the thicket of farangs lazing on the beach.
"Private," he'd yell after me. "I don't have a good feeling about this, Private. This place gives me the creeps. We should radio for reinforcements. It could be an ambush."
"Let 'em come, Sergeant! We can take 'em!" I would squeal, crawling through the sand with a large stick in hand, eyes trained on the enemy. "Those gooks'll be sorry they ever showed their ugly faces."
One day, the three of us went to the fresh market by the Island's southern pier. I saw a litter of pigs there, six of them squeezed into a small cardboard box amidst the loud thudding of butchers' knives. I remember thinking of the little piglets I'd seen skewered and roasting over an open fire outside many of the Island's fancier restaurants.
I began to cry.
"What's wrong, Private?"
"I don't know."
"A soldier," the Sergeant grunted, "never cries."
"They just piggies," Ma laughed, bending to pat me on the back. Because of our plans to move to California, Ma was learning English at the time. She hasn't spoken a word of English to me since. "What piggies say, luk? What they say? Piggies say oink-oink. No cry, luk. No cry. Oink-oink is yummy-yummy."
A few days later, the Sergeant walked into my bedroom with something wriggling beneath his T-shirt. He sat down on the bed beside me. I remember the mattress sinking with his weight, the chirping of some desperate bird struggling in his belly.
"Congratulations, Private," the Sergeant whispered through the dark, holding out a young and frightened Clint Eastwood in one of his large, chapped hands. "You're a CO now. A commanding officer. From now on, you'll be responsible for the welfare of this recruit."
I stared at him dumbfounded, took the pig into my arms.
"Happy birthday, kiddo."
And shortly before the Sergeant left us, before Ma took over the motel from her parents, before she ever forbade me from speaking the Sergeant's language except to assist the motel's guests, before I knew what "bastard" or "mongrel" or "slut" or "whore" meant in any language, there was an evening when I walked into the ocean with Clint Eastwood-I was teaching him how to swim-and when I looked back to shore I saw my mother sitting between the Sergeant's legs in the sand, the sun a bright red orb on the crest of the mountains behind them. They spoke without looking at each other, my mother reaching back to hook an arm around his neck, while my piglet thrashed in the sea foam.
"Ma," I asked a few years later, "you think the Sergeant will ever send for us?"
"It's best, luk," Ma said in Thai, "if you never mention his name again. It gives me a headache."
After I finished combing the beach for trash, put Clint Eastwood back in his pen, Lizzie and I went up the mountain on my motorcycle to Surachai's house, where his uncle Mongkhon ran an elephant-trekking business. Mr. Mongkhon's Jungle Safari, a painted sign declared in their driveway. Come Experience the Natural Beauty of Forest with the Amazing View of Ocean and Splendid Horizon from Elephant's Back! I'd informed Uncle Mongkhon once that his sign was grammatically incorrect and that I'd lend him my expertise for a small fee, but he just laughed and said farangs preferred it just the way it was, thank you very much, they thought it was charming, and did 1 really think I was the only huakhuai who knew English on this godforsaken Island? During the war in Vietnam, before he started the business, Uncle Mongkhon had worked at an airbase on the mainland dishing lunch to American soldiers.
From where Lizzie and I stood, we could see the gray backs of two bulls peeking over the roof of their one-story house. Uncle Mongkhon used to have a corral full of elephants before the people at Monopolated Elephant Tours came to the Island and started underpricing the competition, monopolizing mountain-pass tariffs, and staking their claim upon farangs at hotels three stars and up-doing, in short, what they had done on so many other islands like ours. MET was putting Uncle Mongkhon out of business, and in the end he was forced to sell several elephants to logging companies on the mainland. Where there had once been eight elephants roaming the wide corral, now there were only two-Yai and Noi-aging bulls with ulcered bellies and flaccid trunks that hung limply between their crusty forelegs.
"Oh, wow," Lizzie said. "Are those actual elephants?"
"They're so huge."
She clapped a few times, laughing.
"Huge!" she said again, jumping up and down. She turned to me and smiled.
Surachai was lifting weights in the yard, a barbell in each hand. Uncle Mongkhon sat on the porch bare-chested, smoking a cigarette. When Surachai saw Lizzie standing there in her bikini, his arms went limp. For a second I was afraid he might drop the weights on his feet.
"Where'd you find this one?" he said in Thai, smirking, walking toward us.
"Boy," Uncle Mongkhon yelled from the porch, also in Thai. "You irritate me. Tell that girl to put on some clothes. You know damn well I don't let bikinis ride. This is a respectable establishment. We have rules."
"What are they saying?" Lizzie asked. Farangs get nervous when you carry on a conversation they can't understand.
"They just want to know if we need one elephant or two."
"Let's just get one." Lizzie smiled, reaching out to take my hand. "Let's ride one together." I held my breath. Her hand shot bright, surprising comets of heat up my arm. I wanted to yank my hand away even as I longed to stand there forever with our sweaty palms folded together. I heard the voice of Surachai's mother coming from inside the house, the light sizzle of a frying pan.
"It's nothing, Maew," Uncle Mongkhon yelled back to his sister inside. "Though I wouldn't come out here unless you like nudie shows. The mongrel's here with another member of his international harem."
"These are my friends," I said to Lizzie. "This is Surachai."
"How do you do," Surachai said in English, shaking her hand, looking at me all the while.
"I'm fine, thank you." Lizzie chuckled. "Nice to meet you."
"Yes yes yes," Surachai said, grinning like a fool. "Honor to meet you, madam. It will make me very gratified to let you ride my elephants. Very gratified. Because he"-Surachai patted me on the back now-"he my handsome soulmate. My best man."
Surachai beamed proudly at me. I'd taught him that word: "soulmate."
"You're married?" Lizzie asked. Surachai laughed hysterically, uncomprehendingly, widening his eyes at me for help.
"He's not," I said. "He meant to say 'best friend.'"
"Yes yes," Surachai said, nodding. "Best friend."
"You listening to me, boy?" Uncle Mongkhon got up from the porch and walked toward us. "Bikinis don't ride. It scares the animals."
"Sawatdee, Uncle," I said, greeting him with a wai, bending my head extra low for effect; but he slapped me on the head with a forehand when I came up.
"Tell the girl to put on some clothes," Uncle Mongkhon growled. "It's unholy."
"Aw, Uncle," I pleaded. "We didn't bring any with us."
"Need I remind you, boy, that the elephant is our national symbol? Sometimes I think your stubborn farang half keeps you from understanding this. You should be ashamed of yourself. I would tell your ma if it wouldn't break her heart.
"What if I went to her country and rode a bald eagle in my underwear, huh?" he continued, pointing at Lizzie. "How would she like it? Ask her, will you?"
"What's he saying?" Lizzie whispered in my ear.
"Ha ha ha," Surachai interjected, gesticulating wildly. "Everything okay, madam. Don't worry, be happy. My uncle, he just say elephants very terrified of your breasts."
"You should've told me to put on some clothes." Lizzie turned to me, frowning, letting go of my hand.
"It's really not a problem," I said, laughing.
"No," Uncle Mongkhon said to Lizzie in English. "Not a big problem, madam. Just a small one."
Excerpted from SIGHTSEEING by Rattawut Lapcharoensap Copyright © 2005 by Rattawut Lapcharoensap. Excerpted by permission.
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