Robert Bingham: Lightning on the Sun

lightning.jpgRobert 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.

 

 Sources

Chapter 1, Lightning on the Sun

Stacy d’Erasmo, review in the New York Times, April 23, 2000.

Amelia Hill, review in the Guardian, 1 July, 2001

Samantha Gillison, review in Brown Alumni Magazine, July/August 2000

Bob Wake, review in Culture Vulture, 7 July, 2006

Adam Wilson, The American Reader

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Nathan A. Thompson, poet

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Book launch 21 April, 7.30pm, MetaHouse. Available on Amazon.

MetaHouse, Phnom Penh, 7.30pm, 21 April 2016. Nathan A. Thompson humbly presents his first collection of poetry, 31 poems plucked from nearly 400 written over the last decade. They chronicle an early adulthood given over to drugs and furious pursuits, meditations on “the simple, spiritual things that promise salvation” (as writer, Shane Levene noted in his blurb) before resting in the groundless, ambivalent spaces of life. Nathan has been a committed writer since he was first published aged 14. He hopes this collection will be worthy of an appreciative audience.

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Nathan has written for the Guardian, Slate, Telegraph, Christian Science Monitor, Gawker, Vice, Independent, Salon and many more. He now lives in Phnom Penh, where he writes news, features and travel covering Asia. The range of his coverage is truly impressive (see the links below). I’m going to finish off with some quotes from an article he published in a magazine called The Fix, in which he stands in a Burmese poppy-field with a ball of raw opium in his hand and celebrates being three years drug-free:

I’m now three years clean from heroin. To the day. I didn’t mean to mark this event by smelling a ball of fresh dope like some screwy birthday cake. I doubt my old counselors would recommend this as a good place for a former junky to be. But I’m here to work. Not get high. Just a little bit? No… Definitely not to get high.

But I’d be lying if I wasn’t also fulfilling that old junky dream of walking through fields of bobbing poppies, watching fresh opium ooze from gashes in their bald heads. I’ve been fascinated with opium and heroin since childhood. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I was a stressed child and, when I learned that there were these things called drugs that could calm my raging head, I was captivated. Still, I didn’t try heroin for real until I was 24.

Back then I lived in a small town not far from London. Mike the squatter scored for me. He smelt of rotten grass and bonfire. Inside the deserted hospital where he lived with a small group of anarchists and ne’er-do-wells, the walls were camouflaged in soot from the open fire they burned to keep out the winter darkness. Sometimes there was a blackened pot of baked beans simmering in the embers.

I inhaled smoke from a mercurial blob of smack as it ran down the tin foil. At first, I felt stoned. Then I felt nice. Really, really nice. I stopped caring about the damp, filth and soot. I didn’t care about the job I hated. I didn’t care about the nameless fears that fermented in my guts. It was a beautiful release.

The ball of opium is still in my hands. I smell it a second time. Heroin smells like this. A little urge lands like a soft punch to the stomach. Why not just break off a little bit? For old time’s sake? I hand the ball back. It’s a familiar pattern of thought and, after three years, it has little power. I don’t know if I’ve grown strong or if it’s been weakened by abstinence. The opium farmer, an earnest Burmese man with a kind smile, returns the ball to the only other room in his rough, wooden house. I check my Dictaphone and press “stop.” The interview is done.

The last time the urge to get high proved irresistible, I was at a screening of a documentary about the poet, Amiri Baraka. I had just returned to London after a stint in the countryside where I had managed to claw three months clean. As the crease-faced poet bawled lines to the sound of a squalling saxophone, I felt my phone vibrate. I pulled it out and angled my eyes down, “Banging gear, 10/10 quality, delivery on orders over two,” it read. I knew my dealer didn’t really have “10/10” quality stuff, but it was enough to start an eruption in my amygdala.

I tried to force myself to focus on the documentary. But it was too hard. When I left the screening I was trembling in anticipation. If I could just make it to the Underground I could put some distance between myself and the dealer’s area… But the phone was already out of my pocket. I disassociated—watching someone else dial. It felt good to stop fighting. As if I had been clinging to a rock and was now weightless in the torrent. “Nath? Long time, bro!” said the dealer.

My fixer and I are leaving the opium-growing village. I’m on the back of his motorbike. The road is red and winds through the mountains. As we round a Precambrian cliff, I see miles of rice fields below, glowing green in the sunset. That final smack session after the documentary lasted three days. I’m passing through those dates like the sun might pass through the Zodiac sign of the smackhead.

Sources:

Nathan Thompson’s website: includes links to his journalism

The Fix: Turning three years clean in an opium field

Errant magazine: 3 poems