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Book Review

Novel of Expatriate Noir in Southeast Asia

LIGHTNING ON THE SUN, By Robert Bingham, Doubleday, $23.95, 288 pages


We begin reading Robert Bingham's first and last novel in hopes of learning something about why this talented young author, scion of a Southern newspaper publishing family, died last year of a heroin overdose. And, indeed, the plot of "Lightning on the Sun" concerns heroin smuggling. Its atmosphere, as the jacket copy notes, is one of "postmodern moral compromise," and its main characters are the sort who joke about being "dark creatures of the night, paying for our sins."

But soon other aspects of the novel divert our attention. One is its quality. Bingham, who also wrote a story collection, "Pure Slaughter Value," was talented. Though the epigraph for "Lightning on the Sun" comes from Graham Greene, it's Robert Stone whom he most resembles. Like Stone, Bingham can make us believe in, even reluctantly sympathize with, deeply flawed people; and he seems able to describe any scene, domestic or exotic, with economy and power.

Then we notice that the first half of this story is a lot like Stone's "Dog Soldiers," which won the National Book Award in 1975. Bingham changes the Southeast Asian heroin source from Saigon to Phnom Penh. He makes the smuggler a broken-down UNESCO monument-preservation expert rather than a broken-down journalist. The courier who "carries the weight" is an unwitting journalist rather than a Marine who's part of the scheme. The woman who takes delivery of the drug in the United States (and who gets involved with the courier) is an ex-girlfriend rather than a wife. Otherwise, it's deja vu.

The parallels are impossible to miss. Bingham even replays the scene in which the amateur smugglers, fleeing genuine bad guys (corrupt cops in Stone's novel, a dwarfish New York strip-joint owner and his hired muscle in this one), try to shake their pursuers by zigzagging through a department store.

Fortunately, Bingham knew when it was time to diverge from the model. Though he has much of the Stone style--portraying dissolution in ironically precise prose, like a drunk walking very carefully lest he stumble--his is the smaller gift. "Lightning on the Sun" avoids the excesses of "Dog Soldiers" (the firefight between narcs and smugglers on a mountain wired for a psychedelic light show) but also can't match its sublimities (the Marine's death march through the Sonoran desert).

What we're left with is a thriller about three educated, youngish, white Americans who have been whittled down, symbolically, to one name apiece. Asher is broke and wants out of Cambodia. To get the heroin, he borrows money from a loan shark who will kill him if he doesn't pay up. Asher's ex-lover, Julie, is a Harvard graduate who tends bar because she's into "marginalization." She's supposed to turn the drug over to her boss, the dwarf but, instead, rips off the courier, Reese, before the dwarf can rip her off.

What follows, as the story ricochets from Phnom Penh to New York to a New England prep school (where Reese, mourning the lost idealism of his youth, delivers a stoned lecture), then back to Phnom Penh, is heedlessness and murder and the forlorn approximation these people can make of love. They are just as likely to burst into tears as to lash out in violence. Even when they do something brave, they are too self-conscious to believe in it.

Belief, as in a Greene novel, hovers around the edges of "Lightning on the Sun"--there's a missionary who almost has the last word. But the last word, instead, is Cambodia's--the ingrained terror of a country trying to recover from the Khmer Rouge, where Asher's elderly landlord reacts to any stray gunshot with "one side of his face twitching with disorder. The old ghosts . . . the death thing."

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