It’s something of an irony that Thailand, alone among its Southeast Asian neighbors, was never a colony, since no country in the region benefits—or suffers—as much from the encroaching presence of the West. Born in Chicago and raised in Bangkok, Rattawut Lapcharoensap is more qualified than most to address the cross-cultural tensions of contemporary Thailand—specifically, what it means to be a local in a tourism-dependent economy and society. The thesis is bluntly stated in “Sightseeing,” the title story of the 25-year-old writer’s debut collection: “Thailand was only a paradise for fools and farangs [Thai slang for Westerners], for criminals and foreigners.” Indeed, recent reports that relief efforts on the country’s tsunami-struck Andaman coast have sidelined fishing villages in favor of beach resorts provide a sadly topical backdrop for Lapcharoensap’s minor-key riffs, all set in Thailand and mostly narrated by precociously wise, working-class boys and young men.
The opening story, “Farangs,” acknowledges the long-term psychic toll of professional hospitality while also conceding that objectification cuts both ways: “Pussy and elephants. That’s all these people want,” the narrator’s motel-keeper mother grumbles, even as her son eagerly succumbs to the charms of a vacationing American babe in a Budweiser bikini. But Sightseeing, time and again, manages to turn such swirling contradictions into tidy coming-of-age truisms, politely resisting the free fall of deeper desires and resentments. What’s more, the symbolic East-West collisions are often clumsy: One character’s first taste of a fast-food burger causes him to throw up.
Lapcharoensap’s Thailand isn’t exactly touristy, but no less than in self-conscious Western sojourns like Alex Garland’s The Beach and Michel Houellebecq’s Platform, it can seem routinely exotic: We get the expected glimpses of brothels, street markets, and cockfight rings, along with dutifully unglamorous nods to methamphetamine addiction and government corruption. The more successful stories attempt some sort of inversion: “Don’t Let Me Die in This Place” tries on the embittered, bigoted voice of a stroke-paralyzed widower who moves from Baltimore to Bangkok to live with his son, his Thai daughter-in-law, and their “mongrel children.” “Priscilla the Cambodian” shifts focus to a different class of foreigner: Cambodian refugees, matter-of-factly withstanding the brutal xenophobia of the natives. The title story follows a mother and son on holiday —his last year before college, her last before she loses her sight: locals behaving like tourists, reveling in the perspective of home as a strange land for the first and final time.