Book Review: Sukhumvit Road by David Youngposted on 23 February 2009 | posted in Books
The story is based in and around Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok - a road that conjours up images of fat pale men drinking mid-morning beers, craning their necks to the sports channel. Another image is of fat pale men drinking beers after dark, craning their necks to tabletop dancers.
The main character of the book - Bami - provides the latter entertainment option. She is a bargirl who earns her living by stepping in and out of her clothes at the right times.
All characters in the book are connected in some way to Bami - either outright customers (johns), would-be, could-be or has-been lovers.
Throughout the book, all the male characters are made to jump over hurdles and leap through hoops of fire - and to the author's credit - we get the full representation of male angst laid bare - extracted out slowly over 400+ pages.
First we meet Phineas - he is Bami's latest barfine. Bami and Phineas exchange small talk in the morning after. Phineas knows the deal with bargirls:-
"While nights might have been all passion and fire, mornings were a broken clock."
If Phineas is the reality-check character you can relate to, Nathan is the dreaming idealist you want to give a slap; he flies out to Thailand to ask Bami to marry her. You know he is heading for disaster, and he is told so even before his plane touches down - by an elderly man sitting next to him. And this is no bit-part player here - the old man turns out to be Owen Macy, who is also flying to Bangkok to meet Bami, and ask her for a similar kind of commitment. A big coincidence - of which there are many. We'll come back to that later.
Bami shares her flat with an alcoholic farang - Roley - he barfines her everynight for the privilege of sharing her apartment and getting the full Girlfriend Experience (well, this turns out to be a very poor experience). He is also attempting to chronicle her life through non-sensical drunken diary notes. His life's soundtrack is one of beer cans fizzing open. She's away half the time sleeping in various hotels earning extra barfines, while Roley is always drinking another beer. Unless stated otherwise, Roley is always drinking another beer.
Next up is Frank, a previous boyfriend of Bami. He is 49% owner of an a-go-go bar - and suffers a kind of 'assassination complex' - always thinking his Thai business partner is planning to kill him.
Finally there's the enigmatic Frye Fisk, who seems to control situations to a supernatural degree. He's the slippery character who pops up unexpectedly throughout the book.
Their stories play out along a 4-day timeline in Bangkok - with the storylines slowly but surely converging.
What's good about this book
David Young's style is very entertaining - most of the book speaks in first person through the mouths of its characters - and they're not short of humourous one-liners. The story cuts between the characters often giving the story a fast pace with always enough intrigue to keep you reading (I got through the book in a few days). The characters are fairly stereotypical but thankfully go against type enough throughout the book to give them some dimension.
What's not so good
They say truth is stranger than fiction. Well, not this fiction. Coincidences pile-up one after another. I know it's meant to be a farce, but even farces need some basis in reality. Characters are forever bumping into each other - be they at the same nightclub, sitting next to each other on a plane (on two occasions), or even swapping lovers (unknowingly). After a while, you just suspend belief altogether and go with the flow.
Also, you have to question Bami as the wonderful girl the male characters describe her as. She really is the fickle butterfly in the closing scenes, literally prepared to take the very next guy who is willing to take her suitcases to a new destination. If it's just about her looks, then there's thousands of other beautiful bargirls out there who are just as non-committal. But then again - the characters pay the price of their folly.
Also (without giving too much away), Frye Fisk is an annoyingly enigmatic character - is he a master of voodoo, or just a fat looney? Is he even real? There was no satisfying denouement to signify Fisk's purpose in the book.
Despite the elaborate plot, I enjoyed the book for its dialogue and style - it's a laugh even if the plot makes you go 'eh?' more than once. Leave the plot alone, and just enjoy the style.