Hustle the East arrives in Catalonia.
Hustle the East arrives in Catalonia.
Bantam paperback, 1955
The Quiet American serves up a classic love triangle amid political treachery in Saigon. A jaded English journalist and a youthful American economic aid officer fall in love with the same woman, the willowy, amber-skinned Phuong, an embodiment of the eternal beauty and mystery of Vietnam.
It’s also a political novel, spiked with philosophical and ideological dilemma. Should men of conscience stand up to America’s intervention alongside France in opposition to Vietnam’s struggle for self-rule? Should America use its massive might to instill wide-eyed Western idealism and liberal individualism in a country that’s never known democracy? In the short term, should Washington support the tactics of torture and terrorism employed by murderous Vietnamese allies? In the long term, is it better to enter a prolonged war that will cause unimaginable suffering, or allow Vietnamese nationalists to establish a Communist regime?
Thomas Fowler, the story’s narrator, is a red-faced, middle-aged reporter who finds refuge in his quiet romance, his opium pipes and his sense of dégagé, being uninvolved. Only when Fowler discovers that an earnest young American has stolen away his mistress does he re-engage in events. Alden Pyle’s personality and C.I.A.-scented activism stoke Fowler’s hatred of Americans in Southeast Asia. He says, “I was tired of the whole pack of them, with their private stores of Coca-Cola and their portable hospitals, and their too-wide cars and their not quite latest guns,” he says. At another point he haughtily derides “the poverty of American literature, the scandals of American politics (and) the beastliness of American children.”
Fowler disses Pyle for his idealism and lack of real-world experience: “He was young and silly and ignorant and he got involved.” He mocks Pyle’s typical American preoccupation with “mental ideas,” including “-isms and -ocracies.” Adding fuel to the fire, Fowler learns that Pyle has thrown in his lot, and America’s, with a despotic general who leads a Third Force against both the beleaguered French and the advancing Communists. He sees Pyle as complicit in a terrorist bombing that kills and cripples civilians in the square opposite the Continental Hotel. Fowler is ruthless yet he’s shocked when Pyle defends the murder of women and children as a tool to effect positive political change. Worse yet, the reporter susses out that Pyle is importing plastic of the sort terrorists can mold into bicycle bombs.
Alden Pyle is a fine example of an American whose innocence and good intentions bring tragic consequences. Greene has granted the quiet American a few good qualities. He is Boston-bred and Harvard-educated, exceedingly polite and highly scrupled; he doesn’t drink, or smoke opium, and he has the decency to tell Fowler face-to-face that he plans to marry Phuong. In fact, he earnestly asks Fowler to translate his troth. And it is Pyle who gallantly risks his own life to save Fowler from dying under fire in a rice paddy. Pyle says he did it for Phuong. Fowler retorts that he would not do the same for Pyle, and apparently he means it.
In what could be an allegory for the way Western powers regard Vietnam, Phuong’s pair of suitors discuss Love Saigon Style. Pyle tells Fowler that Phuong can’t possibly love him because he lies to her. Fowler admits he lies because he wants to keep her. The Englishman tells his American adversary: “Love’s a Western word. We use it for sentimental reasons or to cover up an obsession with one woman.” Asians are too practical to suffer from obsessions, he asserts. Pyle says he wants to give Phuong “a decent life” in America, which Fowler paints as a deep freezer, a car of her own, the latest model TV and supermarkets that sell celery wrapped in cellophane. Fowler says his live-in lover is quite capable of deciding for herself. “She’s tougher than you’ll ever be,” he says. “She can survive a dozen of us.”
Greene’s novel is positively brilliant with conversation that cuts like a diamond. If you read only one of the books on the Ugly American bookshelf, read this one.
Movie posters, 1958, 2002
1959 movie directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
2002 movie directed by Philip Noyce
There’s a story behind Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1959 screen adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1955 novel. It’s a story with political overtones and it’s not entirely clear what role politics played when Mankiewicz surgically depoliticized the novel. At the center of the artistic intervention intrigue is Edward Lansdale, the real-life Air Force major general and C.I.A. operative most prominently associated with American military and espionage intervention in Southeast Asia. Greene denies modeling the quiet American Alden Pyle on Lansdale; but both the real Lansdale and the fictional Pyle walked a small black dog on the streets of Saigon in 1952, when Greene himself served as a foreign correspondent. Both Lansdale and Pyle had a consuming interest in keeping Southeast Asia free of Communism at all costs.
Director Mankiewicz met Lansdale in Saigon and it’s known that Lansdale advised the filmmaker when he was adapting Greene’s novel for the screen, boldly flipping an essentially anti-American novel into a pro-American film. In the transformation process, the novel’s Alden Pyle lost his name (He was simply called The American in the film.) Pyle not only lost his name; he lost his savvy East Coast upbringing, his Ivy League education and his job as economic adviser (cum C.I.A. agent) in the U.S. mission.
Portrayed by the World War II hero Audie Murphy, The American of the film is a Texan who works for a foundation. He’s more of a Gomer Pyle than an Alden Pyle: a do-gooder who says ” Oh, golly.” It seems his main occupation in Saigon is to make Phuong more American. Moviegoers may wonder if the Boy Scout was secretly a cowboy James Bond but there’s no way of knowing. Curious minds also want to know if Mankiewicz defanged his movie for political purposes, or merely to sell tickets?
The 2002 version of the film astutely casts Michael Caine in the role of Thomas Fowler although there were fewer accolades for the casting of Brendan Fraser as Alden Pyle (Pyle gets his name back). Caine was nominated for Best Actor in the Academy Awards, Golden Globes and BAFTA.
Critics agreed that the 2002 film was better written — without help from the C.I.A., — and better directed by the Australian Philip Noyce, who closely follows Graham Greene’s celebrated story line.
Penguin paperback, 1976
Rereading Saint Jack after 40 years, I wondered what Jack Flowers would think about today’s Singapore. Clearly, he would despise the single-party island state for its strict Confucian / hyper-Catholic moralism and repressive regulations, although he might dig it for the innumerable opportunities to make oodles of money.
Flowers was a colorful character out of Boston who washed up in Singapore, much like Paul Theroux, who lectured at a university there in 1968. The author first introduces Flowers as an untrustworthy narrator of his own tawdry Conradian tale. At 53, after years at sea and 14 years in Singapore, Flowers is no longer a Devil-may-care American college dropout. He’s as dispassionate about his day job as an odd-jobber in a Chinese ship chandlery, as he is about his sideline, conscientiously providing Chinese and Malay girls for sailors and married men. Despite a well-earned reputation for provisioning ships and hotels with local women, he doesn’t think of himself as a pimp, merely as A Useful Man, with a reputation for having “a finger in every tart.”
Flowers fawns over his johns like a sycophant, unable to speak his own mind. Dining with one of his customers, he reluctantly passes up the seafood he craves because the customer suggests the food isn’t up to par. Flowers is wilting but not without hope, composing over and over in his mind letters congratulating him on winning a fortune in a hoped-for future.
Into his dispirited life comes a cool-eyed English auditor named William Leigh, who casts shadows like a funeral shroud over Flowers’ purposeful life as a part-time ponce. When Leigh’s heart gives out, Flowers mourns him and thus embarks on his own canonization. A second archangel appears in the form of a U.S. Army employee named Edwin Shuck, who ensures Flowers’ financial success, at least for a while.
Flowers arrived in Singapore just as it was emerging from the cloak of colonialism. Even so, barflies leftover from the Empire populate the bars, exchanging enough British witticisms to make an American reader want to dump a crate of tea in Singapore Harbour.
Having left home for good reason, Flowers didn’t really want to be seen as an American, lampooning his countrymen as “the glad-hander, the ham with the loud jokes and big feet and flashy shirts.” But his Americanness had advantages when it came to pimping. “Being American was part of my uniqueness,” he says. Against his will, Flowers purposefully exaggerates his accent and becomes known as The Yank, making his rounds on a well-upholstered trishaw, making friends with Chinese bargirls and foreign sailors in order to twain East and West.
Remaining at his day job to keep his visa, the streetwise pimp and porn-pusher opens his own brothel, poetically named the Dunroamin. The brothel is a big hit in the demimonde of expats but not the underworld of Chinese secret society gangsters, who kidnap and torture him, tattoo him with Chinese expletives and torch his bordello.
With money from the U.S. Army, the burnt-out brothel owner survives purgatory to become the glad-handing proprietor of the Paradise Gardens, which succors G.I.s on R & R from Vietnam for five days at a time. Happy in his Eden, catering to sexually starved G.I.s, Flowers begins to see himself as a saint awaiting annunciation. “I was the kind of angel I expected to visit me,” he explains. “I was a noisy cheerful creature. But the mutters in my mind told me I was Saint Jack.”
On this Earth, Uncle Sam giveth and Uncle Sam taketh away. When a change in Pentagon policy shutters Saint Jack’s profitable Paradise, Flowers seeks out Shuck, the Government man who once told him, “We’re all whores one way or another.” Funny that it’s Shuck, a decidedly Ugly American, who gives Saint Jack a shot at salvation.
Saint Jack by Paul Theroux, book cover, 1973; film poster, 1979
The peripatetic world-traveler Paul Theroux has observed that in the world’s oldest and greatest port cities, brothels were always conveniently located. In Singapore, Southeast Asia’s premier port, a classic Asian massage parlor and brothel might be tucked away in a tiled-roof suburban mansion.
Jack Flowers, the back-alley pimp and shore-to-ship procurer, notes that Singapore in the 1960s was very old, “not in years but in attitude.” Unlike other world ports teeming with sexually famished seamen, “the completely Chinese flavor of vice in Singapore made it attractive to a curious outsider, at the same time removing him from guilt and doubt, for its queer differences made it a respectable diversion…”
In the early 1970s, America was pulling out of Vietnam (pun intended) while at home Americans were engrossed in a sexual awakening that produced a proliferation of sexually explicit men’s magazines, women’s literature, and socially accepted pornographic movies.
Published in 1973, Saint Jack gave readers around the world an insider’s look into Asian prostitution. The book and the 1979 film directed by Peter Bogdanovich provided far more revealing glimpses than “The World of Suzie Wong,” the 1960 film directed by Richard Quine.
Theroux’s descriptions can be visceral, as when he describes a room reserved for commercial trysts: “As in all brothel rooms, a carnal aroma hung in the air, as fundamental as sweat, the exposed odor from the body’s most private seams.”
Jack Flowers’ debut in debauchery begins in 1959, the same year Harry Lee becomes prime minister of Singapore in all its squalor. In Flowers’ view, prostitutes enlivened the port city. “…(N)oiseless and glittering and narrow as snakes, they looked like anyone’s idea of the Asian concubine.” The look was a mask depicting the client’s sexual ideal” just as white shoes marked Flowers as a pimp. He suggests that colorful silk dresses gave cold quick girls “an accidental allure, titillating by flouncy mystification…”
Other men sold ordinary souvenirs, Flowers sold what he called “the ultimate souvenir – the experience, in the flesh, of fantasy.” Flowers never stated a price for his introduction service but he was not, he said, a pimp with a heart of gold. As a sideline of his sideline, he sold pornographic photos and decks of cards from his back pocket.
Flowers says the girls he peddled were “practical and businesslike, obsessed with their health… and they treated their tasks as if they were a medical treatment or minor surgery.” “Many of the girls were modest in a conventional way, which even as a pretense, was compellingly sexy in a whore.” Their friend and protector would never say they were kindly and cheerful but he praised them, saying “they understood their cues and were dependable” as well as obedient and useful. “They believed in ghosts and had a horror of hair and kissing and stinks and dirt, and complained we smelled like cheese.”
“Some didn’t feel a thing, but just lay there, sacrificed and spread, and might say, ‘You are finished, yes?’ before a feller had hardly started.” Most did their job convincingly without having the slightest interest in it, he says. Indeed they had “the genius for being remote at the time of greatest intimacy.” They could be sensationally foul-mouthed in English, but spoke softly in polite Chinese among themselves.
Sharing inside information gleaned from running a wang-house, Flowers catalogues how American men differed from other customers: “The Chinese clients, of whom I had several, liked the big-boned Australian girls; Germans were fond of Tamils, and the English fellers liked anything young, but preferred their girls boyish and their women mannish. … The Americans liked clean sporty ones, to whom they would give nicknames, like ‘Skeezix’ and ‘Pussycat’ (the English made an effort to learn the girl’s real name). Americans, he says, “also went in for a lot of hugging in the taxi, smooching and kidding around, and sort of stumbling down the sidewalk, gripping the girl hard and saying ‘Aw, honey, whoddle ah do?'” When they leave town, Americans write letters back to their girls who can’t read them.
Flowers observes that Chinese customers plunged into it “with hare-like speed” and treated their visit to a cathouse as casually as one might pop out for a hamburger; Europeans considered the whorehouse experience as a kind of therapy. and Americans saw it as part of their education.
The year it came to power, the new People’s Action Party began raiding massage parlors, presaging the moralistic puritanical regime that would transform Singapore in a thousand ways. Hardly anything is left of Saint Jack’s Singapore. It’s a safe bet there aren’t any Americans pimping girls and selling pornography in the canyons of gleaming high-rise hotels and multinational headquarters. Singapore has the Internet now.
The movie Saint Jack differs in many ways from the book. It’s set in a present-day Singapore with a lingering cloak of its colonial past. The likable, easygoing Ben Gazzara stars as Jack, who’s now an Italian-American from Buffalo. Bogdanovich, the film’s director, cast himself as a latter-day version of the original Edwin Shuck. Theroux earned a co-writer credit for the screenplay. Roger Corman is credited as producer and Playboy‘s Hugh Hefner as executive producer. The movie was filmed in Singapore and banned in Singapore. Watch it online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxbfzGRVwiA
Movie poster, 1987; book cover, 2018
There’s a big new biography of Robin Williams, the always (it seemed) hilarious improv comedian, TV and film star who was sadly, a tortured soul. I’m not reviewing the well received book Robin by Dave Itzkoff, and I’m not recounting Williams’s meteoric rise from improvising TV’s Mork from Ork through two dozen Hollywood films including an Oscar win as Best Supporting Actor for “Good Will Hunting.”
Here at the Ugly American Book Club we are reminiscing about Williams’s star turn as Armed Forces Radio broadcaster Adrian Cronauer in the 1987 movie “Good Morning Vietnam.” Just stringing those three words together echoes the ebullient wake-up yell of Saigon’s most memorable morning disc jockey.
As New York Times film critic Vincent Canby observed, the Cronauer character’s irrepressible sunniness filled Saigon’s airwaves at a time when the reality of the escalating war in Vietnam was becoming increasingly grim. As portrayed by Williams, the disk jockey’s irreverent, iconoclastic, antiestablishment monologues proved to be a daily tonic for ordinary G.I.s ground down by military regulations.
Williams improvised a good deal of his disk jockey banter to the delight of director Levinson and screenwriter Mitch Markowitz. Markowitz himself apparently improvised the script “based loosely” on the real AFRN disk jockey. The result was nothing short of a tour de force performance by Williams.
The set-up of the plot is initially predictable. Airman Cronauer settles in at a U.S. Army radio station following a much cushier stint at a military base in Crete. Mindful that there’s a war on, Cronauer’s superior officers insist that the fast-talking, wisecracking Cronauer stick to the soothing music of Perry Como and Percy Faith. Knowing what G.I.s want, Cronauer crosses the line and launches a musical frontal assault against established military policy by throwing red meat rock’n’roll at his audience and serving up a potluck of potty-mouthed humor. His on-air vocal impressions of Nixon and Johnson, along with a cast of made-up on-air persona, mocked U.S. policy in Southeast Asia.
When his sidekick Ed Garlick takes him to a bar, Cronauer falls for Trinh, a Vietnamese woman in a white ao dai. Although fraternization with local women is taboo, the music-spinning miscreant buys a bicycle and follows Trinh to her English-language lesson. In an effort to impress her, he takes over the class and runs Vietnamese students through a gamut of English obscenities. When he invites Trinh to the movies on a date, her whole family chaperones her. Later when G.I.s in a bar harass her brother Tuan, Cronauer springs to his defense. An ensuing barfight lands Cronauer in hot water. To this point, our reckless the G.I. D.J. is a hero, at least to his buddies.
In 1965, Saigon’s cafes were soft targets for Viet Cong terrorists. One day Tuan comes to collect Cronauer from Jimmy Wah’s Bar. Moments after they leave together, the bar explodes, killing and wounding bar patrons and passersby on the street. Cronauer assists the rescue by carrying out the injured. But when he gets back to base and attempts to describe the terrorist bombing on the air, his Army bosses pull the plug on his report and sideline him from further broadcasts.
Cronauer is laying low at his girlfriend’s house when she breaks the news that any future relationship between them is impossible because of her family’s objections to a friendship with an American.
When Cronauer and Garlick drive to An Loc, about 60 miles north of Saigon, to do some interviews, their Jeep hits a landmine. They escape injury and flee into the jungle in Viet Cong-held territory. It is Trinh’s brother Tuan who finds them in the jungle. An Army helicopter locates them and brings them back to Saigon. When Cronauer threatens to quit, Garlick convinces him to stick with it, and when they are stuck in a traffic jam, G.I.s heading to battle recognize him, reinforcing for him the unique role he plays as an on-air cheerleader and morale-booster for the troops.
Cronauer is faced with another personal crisis when his C.O. informs him that Tuan is a Viet Cong operative. Cronauer finds it hard to believe because Tuan has saved his life on two occasions. When the American D.J.’s friendship with Tuan and other Vietnamese becomes an issue, he is ordered to leave Vietnam. He can’t leave without seeing Trinh, and though it may be treasonous, he feels it’s his duty to inform Tuan that U.S. Army counterterrorist agents are after him. So is Cronauer a hero or a chump?
When Cronauer confronts Tuan, the enemy agent, an amusing, thought-provoking movie starring a comedic genius is set for a tragic ending. But there’s comic relief when the screenwriter tosses in a good ol’ American baseball game where Cronauer gets to play with his “good Vietnamese” English students. His buddy Garlick also finds a way for Cronauer, who has been banned from the airwaves, to bid his radio audience farewell. Gooooodbye Viii-et-naaam!
Movie poster, 1991
My cable company offers the Starz Network for free. Even for free, I’d give Starz only 2 stars. The other day I watched “For the Boys,” a star vehicle for Bette Midler. The 1991 film was a red, white and blue flop that lacked sizzle despite musical numbers intended to let the Divine Miss M. dazzle.
Here she’s teamed up with James Caan in a cheesy script intended to pay homage to American entertainers who went on U.S.O. Tours to cheer up and cheer on U.S. troops. The tale traces the careers, friendship and enmity of the musical partners over 50 years, from World War II to Vietnam.
James Caan plays Eddie Sparks, an exceedingly charming fellow with limited song and dance skills in the mold of Bob Hope. Kids of my generation who saw a lot of Bob Hope on TV couldn’t understand why he was so popular with our parents’s generation. Bette Midler’s Dixie Leonard is a singer-comedienne who gets her big break when she’s paired with Eddie for a U.S.O. tour of North Africa, where Dixie’s husband serves as an Army combat photographer.
Right away we see that Eddie’s patriotic sacrifice in volunteering to entertain the troops is mostly a publicity campaign to advance his reputation as an altruistic American patriot. He’s married, with three young daughters, but lusts after Dixie and plays father to her fatherless son Danny.
Fast forward to 1969 when Eddie lures Dixie for another U.S.O. tour, this time in Vietnam, where Danny Leonard is an Army captain. Danny commands a firebase, a temporary encampment set up to provide artillery support. The word “firebase” portends an unfortunate end to the tour.
Eddie is his gung-ho self, blindly supporting U.S. policy in Southeast Asia with a kind of Make America the Greatest Generation Again ethos. “I can’t tell you how damn proud we are of what you’re doing here,” he tells an incredulous Capt. Leonard. “We’re gonna beat those little bastards, y’know,” he says. Expressing the futility of carrying on a conventional war against a jungle-based guerrilla army, Capt. Leonard retorts, “Yes, sir, soon as we find them,”
Later Leonard points out a sweet-looking G.I. from Chicago, and tells his mom: “He collects ears. Cuts them off dead bodies.” Cut-off ears is a common theme in Ugly American literature.
Their time in Vietnam shows the old hoofers that times have changed. Their audience consists of drug-addled draftees who don’t believe in their mission. They’re not like the polite, hopeful young American kids who volunteered to fight fascism fifty years earlier. The whole U.S.O. thing – intended to remind soldiers what they’re fighting for – essentially white American culture – is stale. When a blonde go-go dancer takes the stage to dance the frug for the boys, the grunts aren’t content to watch her moves; they move in and nearly devour her. When Dixie, now about sixty years old, appears on stage, a G.I. shouts, “Show us your tits, Mama.”
“For the Boys” might evoke a bit of nostalgia among eighty-somethings but Millennials will find it as outdated as Bob Hope.
My comments below are based on Mark Atwood Lawrence’s review in the November 25 issue of The New York Times Book Review.
In 1964, North Vietnamese operatives were forcing South Vietnamese peasants to join the Vietcong’s struggle to topple the American-backed Republic of South Vietnam. In his epic book on the Vietnam War, the British journalist and war historian Max Hastings recounts the story of a villager whose son is being conscripted by the Vietcong. The anguished father lashes out at the Communists for calling the Imperialists evil because from what he can see, the North Vietnamese are “even worse” oppressors of South Vietnam’s people.
Isolating this little story, Professor Lawrence observes that Hastings’ view of the entirety of the Vietnam War falls along the same lines. Cruelty on one side was met with cruelty on the other in a decades-long escalation of atrocity and inhumanity.
“In his telling, it was a conflict without good guys. An appalling conflagration in which the brutality, cynicism and incompetence of the United States and its South Vietnamese ally were equaled only by the wickedness of their enemies, leaving the hapless bulk of the Vietnamese population to suffer the consequence.”
Hastings points out that U.S. forces were often effective on the battlefield but Washington failed to create a South Vietnamese state that could command the loyalty of its own people. It was as if America chose to use a flamethrower instead of an edger to trim a garden path.
I am reminded of the novel Hustle the East, where American ambassadors are espousing freedom and democracy for Laos while ordering B-52s to obliterate the Laotian countryside.
The novel’s first narrator, who arrived in Vientiane in 1973, quips: “It took me a while to figure out that in Laos, the good guys were the bad guys.
In a similar vein to what Hastings describes in neighboring Vietnam, more than 60,000 North Vietnamese troops in violation of Laotian neutrality committed atrocities in the name of liberating their Lao brothers from Imperialism. And the Americans responded with the ultimate in flamethrowers.
Here’s an excerpt from the new novel Hustle the East, from Black Rose Writing
1 – Love It or Leave It
My time in Laos taught me that even I was not the person I thought I was. An ordinarily apathetic American, the son of CPAs, I never imagined I would be tossed in jail for killing a prostitute. Back then I wasn’t a murderer. Murder, with premeditation, came much later.
As the newest teacher in the Buddhist kingdom, I resolved I would do everything by the book. I would rely on my good intentions to pave the road ahead. As good intentions often do, mine led me to a place I hadn’t planned to go. It took me a while to figure out that in Laos, the good guys were the bad guys. Who knew that the American saviors of Asian democracy, who bragged they’d never lost a war, would abandon their lofty undertaking and ditch loyal allies without warning?
Jack Gaines was one of the Americans who came to save the Kingdom from Communism, and stayed around to watch it fall. Like Asia itself, Gaines was a charmer and a seducer. I disliked him from the get-go. Based on what I heard about his caddish behavior, I summarily condemned him for his lack of couth and civility. Decades later, I can still see him smile and hear him say, How much civility do you expect in a civil war?
In February 1973, Laos was squooshed between Thailand, which was fighting to remain free, and Vietnam, which was freefalling into Communism. The civil war in Laos was a sideshow in the Vietnam War. “Laos was only the wart on the hog,” a U.S. diplomat once observed undiplomatically. But, as Gaines would say, Oh, what a wart it was!
To this day, when I think of Laos I wonder if it’s possible for love to grow true in a place poisoned by lies and deception.
. . . . .
An open-air motorboat ferried me across the milewide Mekong River from Thailand. Upon landing on a muddy bank, I scrambled up ahead of the other passengers to reach Royal Lao Immigration and Customs. Royal though it was, the Immigration office was a shack no bigger than a telephone booth back home. I presented my passport to a ruddy-faced officer in a green uniform and high-peaked hat.
“Patpawt no good more three days,” he said. He admitted me to the Kingdom anyway.
A decade earlier, my parents had made us passports for a trip to Hawaii. As a consequence of my old man’s colossal incompetence, I was condemned to spend precious hours of my first day in Laos renewing my passport.
Arriving in Vientiane, more bad luck. I checked out the Sanook Hotel but couldn’t check in. The no-stars Sanook had been highly recommended by a hippie I’d met in Bangkok, who’d just come down from Laos still high.
“Up in Vieng, you can buy dope by the kilo,” the hippie told me. “Old grannies sell it at the Morning Market. They make soup with it, Man. I shit you not.”
“What about the war?” I asked.
“It’s far from the capital. You’ll never even know it’s there.”
“I heard a rumor about a ceasefire.”
“Yeah, that rumor’s been around for years.”
After waiting for what seemed to be years, a reedy Lao man of indeterminate age appeared before me like an apparition. I handed my passport to the anemic desk clerk.
“I’m Benny Bendit,” I said.
“Say here Paur,” said the clerk.
“Paul Bendit is my real name. Benny is a nickname.”
“You name Nick?”
“No, Paul. But you can call me Benny. I need a room.”
“No loom. Maybe rater.”
“How much later?” I asked.
“Yes,” said the clerk.
It was not yet eight a.m. Roomless, restless and afflicted by the hotel’s ailing air-conditioning, I ordered coffee.
“Nohm, or no nohm?” asked the clerk who was also the barista. The coffee cup of my brain was brimming with incomprehension.
“Nohm it mean lady’s boob and also mean milk,” the gaunt man explained.
“Kafe nohm it mean kafe wit’ milk.”
Ten minutes later, I got my kafe nohm. Lao coffee was a mountain-grown Arabica blessed with a unique flavor and blended with chicory to stretch the meager crop. Kafe nohm was served in a three-inch high glass with a half-sized spoon atop a saucer. Wallowing in the bottom of the glass was an inch-thick dollop of sweetened condensed milk. In a quaint custom that defied a coffee-lover’s logic, Lao coffee was always served with a glass of weak Chinese tea. Coffee comes with tea. Welcome to Laos.
At quarter to nine, the kafe nohm was a sweet memory. The weak tea had miraculously washed away the sticky-milk residue of the coffee. I removed my passport and Traveler’s Cheques from my Samsonite and made sure to lock it.
“Is it safe to leave my suitcase until a room becomes available?” I asked the druggy-eyed clerk.
“You come back too soon,” he said.
“Is it O.K. to leave it here for half an hour?”
“How about one hour?”
I looked into the young old man’s dilated eyes.
“You don’t understand English, do you?”
Passport in hand, I set off for the U.S. Embassy. I was confident I could conclude my embassy business, check into the hotel, and collect a teaching certificate before the end of the day, maybe even before noon. My unfettered
enthusiasm belied my unbound naïvete. As a newbie, I had no inkling this would be a red-letter day in the Kingdom’s six-hundred-year history, a date that would live in anti-Communist infamy.
On the streets of Vientiane the first thing that hits you is the capital’s signature fragrance, an eau d’égout that emanates from open sewage trenches. The next is the feeling that a soggy blanket of moist air is smothering you. Sweating bullets, I trod a treacherous pedestrian terrain over tilted and cracked sidewalks.
Rue Samsenethai was a jumble of two-story shophouses that mingled the sights and smells of Siam, China and India with those of France, Corsica and the Hippie Trail. The main drag’s distinctive characteristic was a mélange of
motorcycle fumes mixed with the pungent aromas of curry, incense and the Vietnamese soup called phở. There were few cars. Three-wheeled bicycle taxis took up the prime parking at the Constellation Hotel. Samlor drivers parked willy-nilly near the curb, sitting on their bicycle seat, or lounging on the passenger seat under its canvas awning.
In Rue Chanthakhoummane, I discovered a dilapidated bell-shaped Buddhist monument. Tufts of grass and little trees reached out from its cracks. The sooty pile of broken bricks and century-old mortar looked like a twelve-layer cake topped by a stone party hat. Plopped down in the middle of the road, the resolute black hunk compelled traffic to circulate around it. What a stupid place to place an ancient monument! A quarter of the way round it, I caught sight of an American flag flapping high above a canopy of flame trees.
The U.S. Embassy compound stood on Rue Bartholoni, a short street named for a French aristocrat who drowned when a mail boat went down in the Mekong River. Behind equally high walls, the Consulate stood on one side of the shady little street, the Chancery on the other.
Within the ramparts, the whitewashed buildings were chockablock with puffy-faced, paunchy Americans. The diplomats who were fighting a war within a war wore a hangdog expression that foretold the futility of their mission.
The first time I saw Jack Gaines he was standing ahead of me in the queue for the Embassy cashier. It was impossible to ignore a big lug with bushy blond hair in a loud Hawaiian shirt. Even from the back, his posture was an affront. He continually shifted his leggy weight from one buffalo-hide sandal to another.
Sensing my stare, Gaines turned around and flashed a toothy grin. Jeez, I thought. This guy’s got gleaming teeth, a tan like he just got off a beach, and a physique like he spends all day in the gym. But landlocked Laos had no beach and at the time there weren’t enough health-conscious foreigners to support a fitness club. Not only did he lack a gym, he lacked good manners. He was so American. Here was a prime example of the kind of American in Asia I intended to avoid.
As the idiot in the Hawaiian shirt advanced to the window, I caught a glimpse of the graceful Lao woman behind the narrow brass bars of the cashier’s cage. Craning my neck, I could see the cashier wore an immaculate white blouse. Atop her smiling face, her shiny black hair was piled high in a chignon adorned with gold ornaments. Admiration for the cashier melted away when the lout in the loud shirt waved a check in her face as if there were no bars between them.
“Look, Dollface,” said the toothy check-waver. “You really have to cash this. It’s got my name on it: Jack Gaines. You know me: Jack Gaines, The All-American Boy.” I was irritated by the way Jack Gaines The All-American Boy was treating the angelic cashier. Despite the rude treatment she was getting from Gaines, the cashier delivered her refusal to cash his check with a certain sweetness.
“Sorry, I no can do, Mister Jack,” she said. It was customary in Laos to use the honorific Mister with a person’s first name.
Mister Jack kept up the verbal barrage.
“Look here, this is a perfectly good check in perfectly good U.S. dollars. If I paid any taxes, I’d be paying your salary.”
“You choking me, Mister Jack.”
To Lao speakers of English, “joking” and “choking” were homonyms. However, the pretty cashier’s meaning was clear when she added, “You too funny.”
“O.K.,” said the badgerer. “If you won’t cash my check, you can come to my house and swallow my one-eyed snake.”
That did it. I’d had enough of The All-American Boy.
“Excuse me,” I said to Gaines. “But I’m in a hurry.”
“Take it easy, Buddy Boy,” said Gaines. “This is Laos. There’s no such thing as a hurry here.”
He turned to leave, slowly. Like he said, no hurry. Making a mental note to ignore Gaines if I ever saw him again, I stepped up to the lovely doe-eyed woman in the cashier’s cage. I felt the need to apologize on behalf of the American people.
“Miss, I’m really sorry about that guy,” I said.
The pretty cashier accepted my payment without looking up. As I stammered on about Gaines’s rudeness, she completed the transaction.
“Hav’a ni’ day,” she said.
What was the inspiration for Hustle the East?
I was living in Laos in 1975 when I discovered the book Voices from the Plain of Jars; Life under An Air War. The stories and drawings from adults and children collected on the Plain of Jars brought home to me that the United States was engaged in a horrific air war against villagers not very far from where I was. My idea was to reveal details of the illegal and immoral U.S. bombing campaign in a novel that would shock Americans. By the time I got around to finishing it 43 years later, the Secret War was no secret.
Why did you use three first-person narrators?
My first draft was written entirely in the third person. Then I decided that Benny Bendit, the American college grad, should tell his story from his own perspective. But Benny never set foot on the Plain of Jars, so I let the orphaned Lao monk Sangkhom tell that part of the story. Then it occurred to me that both narrators were male, and that a younger, female point-of-view would add another dimension, so Chansamone gets to explain for herself why she made the life-changing decisions she made.
Why is the last part of the book in the present tense?
I borrowed that device from Anthony Duerr, the master of present-tense narration. In this way, events of the 1970s move into the new Millennium.
Are you a veteran of the armed services? Have you ever killed anyone?
Like Benny Bendit, I was in a draft lottery and the ping-pong ball with my birthday came up toward the end, meaning I escaped the draft. Unlike Benny, who is fictional, I never killed anyone.
How does it feel to be a pen name?
If I said it posed a problem, I’d be lying. As my namesake Mark Twain once said: “A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar.”