Robert Worth Bingham IV was graced by the malice of God with good looks, great wealth, and impeccable connections. To balance these he was born into a summary of Southern Gothic plot-points – father killed in front of him by an errant surfboard, uncle electrocuted while stringing up party-lights, grandfather suspected of murdering second wife, grandmother’s last words a wish for “a big pink cloud to come down and take me away,” which it did, on the spot.
Success came early and easily:
[He] was published in the New Yorker at twenty-six and co-edited the most important literary magazine of the nineties (Open City). He was a nightlife persona, throwing parties in his downtown loft that brought together New York’s hippest film stars, musicians and writers. His story collection, Pure Slaughter Value, was lauded as the voice of a generation…
Then he went to Cambodia. Just why, I do not know. Was he suddenly overcome by the emptiness, rocked to the core of his being by the inauthenticity of the unexamined life? I think not. But he was obsessed with death:
He would joke nervously about carrying on what he called the ‘family curse’. In a 1997 interview in New York magazine, he claimed that ‘the odds aren’t on that I’ll get nailed early because they’ve been used up’.
The Binghams who had not fallen victim to a violent end had a propensity to succumb to drink. Shuffling around a house stacked with pizza boxes, broken furniture and a television set that was never turned off, [Robert] Bingham spent the final years of college wearing rags and swigging Jim Beam straight from the bottle.
When sober, Bingham was a complex man: often abusive, occasionally violent, but also kind, clever and generous with his wealth (he funded one friend through film school and footed the bill for countless other projects that caught his attention). When he was drunk, the ugly side to his character was exaggerated, and even his wildest friends learnt to keep their distance.
In Phnom Penh he played tennis on the courts where Lon Nol’s cabinet were executed and hung out with the other death-seekers at the Thanatos Bar. Sober, he was great company, knowledgeable about Cambodian history, witty and charming; drunk, he began to scream and spit and the scary animal came out. He developed a heroin addiction, wrote for the New York Times, and helped start the Cambodia Daily. He was recklessly fearless, even pulling a gun on a Cambodian official extorting money at a roadblock. Out of it came a novel, Lightning on the Sun.
The plot involves aimless young Asher and his girlfriend Julie (no second names) who come up with a plan to smuggle a large quantity of high-grade Cambodian heroin into America. At the American end is a Julie’s boss at the strip-club where she works, and whom she double-crosses. At the Cambodian end is a Khmer loan-shark who Asher double-crosses. Asher and Julie are clearly not going to end happily ever after, and the end of the line is Kampot.
”Lightning on the Sun” cuts deepest when Bingham lets his wicked sense of humor wield the knife. … Cambodia is more expensive backdrop than truly engaged terrain. But, paradoxically, Bingham’s writing is at its most alive when it is most nihilistic, when he lets the devils play. Crime by crime, none of them committed for any good reason, he constructs for each character an anti-résumé. … Against privilege, he asserts haplessness. Against conscience, a faintly ridiculous stupor. In its way, it’s wonderfully anti-American.