If you give your protagonist a name as terse and manly as Asher, you had better be writing a thriller. Robert Bingham's antihero in Lightning on the Sun is in fact called Asher, but the novel isn't quite sure whether it's a thriller or not. The material is right for suspense: Bingham demonstrates a working knowledge of Cambodia (where he was a reporter) and a deeper knowledge of the byzantine pathways of New York old money. It seems, too, that he has had at least a passing acquaintance with the pleasures of heroin--he died of an overdose in early 2000, and his novel is well dusted with white powder. You can see how a writer with this kind of stuff at hand would be unable to resist turning it into a thriller.
The plot is drug-deal boilerplate: Asher, eager to flee Phnom Penh after several years there, borrows money from a Cambodian loan shark and sends a huge shipment of heroin to his ex-girlfriend, who works in a topless bar in Manhattan. The hapless, blue-blazer-wearing reporter Reese is unwittingly tapped to transport the goods from Cambodia to America. Events, needless to say, do not go as planned. Bad juju travels back and forth between the two countries, and by the end, the Khmer Rouge are waving hoes around.
The plot is fairly creaky, full of exposition and coincidence, but the novel is written well enough to keep the pages turning. In fact, by the end, one wonders if Bingham really needs the trappings of suspense at all. His characters are maddening and complex, full of surprising heroism and predictable failures. And his details of life in both countries resound with rightness. He understands the way aid organizations and crime together propel the daily life of Cambodia. "The Russians were known for their criminal sociability and saw their stay in Cambodia as a financial boondoggle. They were thieves, and the UN was a great unguarded henhouse for the fox." And anyone who's spent any time in Southeast Asia will understand Reese's response to hearing a Cambodian band swing into a rendition of "Hotel California": "'Oh, Lord,' said Reese, placing his hand to his temples. 'Please. Not again.'" A great thriller Lightning on the Sun is not, but Bingham's textured depiction of expat life is worth a look. --Claire Dederer