Summer Guide: Lawrence Osbourne Pursues Redeemable Vulgarity in Bangkok Days

'If you let people do what they want, then you get what exists in Bangkok: sexual mayhem," says Lawrence Osborne, with a roguish gleam in his eye. We're discussing his newest book, Bangkok Days, which is subtitled A Sojourn in the Capital of Pleasure. Yet instead of providing a detailed chronicle of sexual profligacy, the book dares to suggest the relative innocence of Thai sex tourism: "Intentionally or otherwise," Osborne writes, "the East/West encounter is nearly always redeemed by being slightly comical."

Over a double espresso, Osborne mentions his respect for Michel Houellebecq, whose 2003 novel Platform—a misanthropic tale of sex and death in Thailand—was greeted with hisses from the American press. "Houellebecq's book was an attack on the idea of sexual liberation," he says in an elegant British accent. "The West boasts about being liberated, yet the premise of Western culture is that you stimulate sexual desire to the nth degree, then make it impossible to consummate." It's this frustration, in part, that accounts for the number of aging male farangs (i.e., Westerners) sipping gin and tonics on the balconies of Bangkok's opulent hotels, waiting for nightfall.

Bangkok Days, due out in June, is Osborne's sixth book. It arrives in the wake of 2006's The Naked Tourist, a sensual romp through India and Southeast Asia fraught with medical mishaps and epiphanies on the nature of travel. A New York City resident for the past 17 years, Osborne first traveled to Bangkok in 1990. He returned frequently for the inexpensive health care, and on assignments for The New York Times Magazine, for whom he has written articles on psychiatry and medicine. He has since established himself as a kind of romantic anthropologist: following his characters into dissipation, then rising from the ooze and appraising them—and himself—with a lucid, journalistic eye.

Maybe sorta like Henry Miller: Osborne
Kris Van Exel/Corbis
Maybe sorta like Henry Miller: Osborne

Who are his characters? Certainly not the young hedonists of Alex Garland's The Beach. "The young are happy," Osborne says, "and I'm not interested in that. I'm more interested in what happens when people hit this weird invisible wall and give up hope." Hence the adorably lascivious old men that populate Bangkok Days. Dennis, a retired bank manager from Australia, spends his time painting watercolors and purchasing underpriced Viagra. Of sex with a young Thai woman (named, incidentally, Porntip), he confesses: "It's pleasure, not happiness, but I am happy with that—if you see what I mean." Farlo, a foul-mouthed, bullet-headed Scotsman, keeps an eco-lodge in a mine-riddled region of Cambodia, where he takes his two or three annual tourists deer hunting with ex-members of the Khmer Rouge.

Osborne uses these men, as W.G. Sebald used his own alienated wanderers, to explore the idea of loneliness and the disappearance of the past. Bangkok—home of the largest sex-change facility in the world, where shrines rot in the shadows of iPod billboards and the Beverly Hills Polo Club—is an ideal place for him to observe. What he finds startling is how happy—or, at least, content—his expatriates appear to be. Westerners move to Bangkok, he writes, not only for the "culture of complete physicality," but "precisely because they can never understand it." For lost souls, he implies, losing oneself in an arcane environment may be just as valuable as finding oneself.

Bangkok holds for Osborne the sort of mystical power that Greece held for Henry Miller, who, in The Colossus of Maroussi, celebrated the country's "passion, contradictoriness, confusion, chaos." Osborne works in the same lineage as Miller; he has the same man-in-the-street sensibility, interest in ugliness, and mad enthusiasm for life. But he's more restrained than the author of Tropic of Cancer, content to leave elliptical the rowdier bacchanals he must have witnessed. The book loses none of its strength through these omissions—instead, they reveal the amount of respect Osborne holds for the "chaotic ease" of Bangkok, which has nourished, in one way or another, so many of his fellow exiles.

North Point Press, 271 pp., $25

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Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums That Changed Their Lives
Edited by Peter Terzian, June

Ever wondered what effect the Who's Quadrophenia had on James Wood's literary criticism? If not, it's still worth watching him apply his gift for exegesis to the band's 1973 concept album. (Keith Moon's drumming, for example, "seems like a form of dedicated vandalism.") Also here: Joshua Ferris on Pearl Jam's Ten, Colm Tóibín on Joni Mitchell's Blue, Pankaj Mishra on ABBA's Super Trouper, and many others. Harper Perennial, 320 pp., $14.99

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The Thing Around Your Neck
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