“All LIes & Jest” — Now available on Amazon Books and Kindle platforms
Here’s an eclectic collection of short stories and longer stories that roam the world from the beaches of Hawaii to the badlands of New Mexico and from Times Square to the Kingdom of Tonga. At The Ugly American Book Club we are focused on Southeast Asia, so we are dismayed to find that only one of 14 stories delivers us to the region.
“Mango Rain” is set in Laos in February 2000. The protagonist is an American with (surprise!) a kind heart and purely good intentions. We’ve met Elliott Midler before in a cameo role. In the author’s first novel of Laos, “Hustle the East” Midler was a teacher in 1975. In “Mango Rain,” he returns to Luang Prabang as a doctor heading the week-long Doctors Who Care medical mission.
Much has changed in Dr. Midler’s absence. The former Buddhist kingdom is now Communist. Gone from the streets are the beggars and the heavily armed police patrols. English-language signs have begun to sprout on guest houses and cafes. A new airport terminal has been built with foreign aid although the Lao government has not yet put in taxiways to reach it.
Some things have remained the same. When Dr. Midler and his colleagues deplane at a dilapidated hangar, Midler sees a wasp’s nest that may have been in the same place for a quarter century. The regional hospital where the American doctors set up shop to provide free medical care and surgery is in chronic disrepair. The people of the region who walk for days to see a doctor are impoverished. Despite it all, Dr. Midler is again struck by the charm and grace of the Lao people, especially the women, and especially Head Nurse Bouadeng.
The arrival of the visiting American doctors shakes Nurse Bouadeng’s world. She questions her commitment to nursing in Laos and to Dr. Bernard Forcier, the French research physician who is researching tropical diseases and courting her in a decidedly desultory fashion.
When Dr. Midler does something nice for the nurse, he pays a price that threatens his future and the future of American medical missions in Laos.
The collection’s longest story, “The Man with 50 Wives”, is a comedic Whodunit set in an intentionally ambiguous locale. We meet a cast of characters in the high-society country-club clique surrounding a celebrated playboy poet who meets his end at his 50th birthday bash. All the names are Hispanic and there are hints that we are in the sophisticated capital of a corruption-tainted, class-conscious country once colonized by Spain. Careful readers may seize on a few clues — like the Tagalog word tsismis for gossp — to conclude we are in Manila.