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Getting the details right

When you read a novel set in your own turf, the details incorporated into the story must be right or the creditability of the storyteller is destroyed. Fiction requires a suspension of disbelief. Mistakes about the location of where the characters move, love, hate, scheme, and survive turn drama into a cartoon.

The question becomes to what extend a publisher does elementary due diligence when it decides to publish a novel. It may be that such an investigation is viewed as suited to non-fiction on the basis (false in my view) that a novelist is entitled to flights of fancy.

I have been reading Nick McDonnell’s The Third Brother published by Atlantic Books. This is no lightweight publisher. They have a reputation for excellence and publishing literary fiction of a high standard. The author was born in New York in 1984. His first novel, Twelve, was translated into 20 languages. It was published when he was 17 years old. One can only hope that those 20 languages will be spared the translation of The Third Brother.

The Third Brother is the story of Mike, a 19-year old American, who goes to Bangkok in search of his father’s missing friend. He’s an intern at a magazine in Hong Kong and decides to write a travel story. Chapters alternate between fleshing out the sleeping, studying and drinking arrangements between the father and his friends, and young Mike making his way through Bangkok. The prose are flat, lifeless, displaying little emotional depth. Of course that is a literary judgment and reasonable minds can differ on whether one finds a sentence like this one elegant: “Mike looks out the window at the flat turquoise sea below. He wonders if Analect has spoken to this father since he arrived in Hong Kong. No, or his father would have said something.”

Some of the amazon reviewers have commented on how The Third Brother brings Bangkok alive. One reviewer said, “It is in describing a very specific scene --- a backyard in the slums of Bangkok, or the 24-hour bar of a sleazy hotel --- that McDonell proves his staying power. His skill lies in his very real ability to bring his reader into the world on the page.” Let’s keep that conclusion in mind and have a look at the first part of the book that is set in Bangkok.

What is off-putting about The Third Brother are the manifold errors about Bangkok and Thailand. You don’t have to wait long to find the first one. “Following Bishop, Mike sails through Bangkok customs on a tourist visa. The room is hot but the lines are short. Customs officials in lizard-colored uniforms slam their stamps and the pale European and Americans in bright, patterned shirts sweat in line and shuffle through.”

This is total rubbish. Don Muang Airport (which is now no longer in service) was air conditioned. I never in 20 years saw anyone sweating in line. The passport is stamped by an Immigration official. Customs officials don’t stamp passports. To describe the immigration clearance area as a room is as misleading as describing an airport hanger as a barn.

Mike meets up with an old hand, Hardy, who has been in Thailand for 22 years and hangs out with backpackers. It seems that Mike, while only 19 years old, is also a journalist doing a travel story about Thailand.

“Mike asks if Hardy can point him to a place where he might score some pills. For the travel story. Mike doesn’t want the pills, he just wants to ask for them.”

Does this make even remote sense? You meet someone your father’s age, you don’t know him and he doesn’t know you, and you ask him to buy drugs. Not because you want drugs but you don’t know what else to ask him. If that piece of logic is off the rails, then have a look at this. Remember Hardy lives in Bangkok. He has survived 22 years.

“No problem, somethin’ like a couple pills,” Hardy says, and resettles his crotch before continuing. “How about a girl, too. Local, the real Thai experience. I’ve got just the one.”

“No thanks,” Mike says, noticing that Hardy is slurring his words. How high is this guy? He wonders.

“Yeah, a girl can be trouble,” Hardy goes on.

Anyone who would talk like this after 22 years in Thailand isn’t high; he’s brain damaged. Even hooked up to life support systems, you wouldn’t hear a long term resident talking like this.

A girl comes up to Mike in a restaurant near his hotel and tells him she knows some good bars. She tells Mike that “Thailand has expanded her consciousness and brought her closer to God. Not really God, but the state of truly organic being.”

Then comes the kicker, “Mike goes back to his room and writes this down in a notebook. He realizes Bangkok is probably full of these people.”

You read that logic and you start to understand how easy it was to sell weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to the Americans.

Mikes takes a motorcycle taxi from Khaosan Road to Soi 4 Silom. What does Mike see along the way? This journey takes place at 8.00 p.m. “Mike leans into the turns, watches the city slide past him. Wild dogs everywhere and carts of rice and vegetables. In one neighborhood, bald men in red robes. Buddhists, but out at night?”

Wild dogs? Everywhere? Mike has been doing drugs. Carts of rice and vegetables? Excuse me, where does anyone see carts of rice and vegetables, and no doubt circled by those wild dogs. Monks aren’t bald. Their heads are shaven. The robes aren’t red. They are saffron color. And monks are not out walking among the wild dogs at 8.00 p.m.

Mike asks Paul where he’s going, and Paul replies, “A sex show,” Paul laughs. “Where else on Buddha Day?”

“It’s a kind of holiday,” Bridget tells Mike. Everyone is supposed to be in prayer, around little fires. You should come with us.”

Yeah, and it is important to keep close to those little fires as it has been established that there are wild dogs everywhere and there may be some dietary problem if you have to live off rice and vegetables.

I have not read Twelve. Perhaps it is brilliant. But in The Third Brother, the author is not in control of his material. He is like someone who has never driven a car, pretending that he is a Formula A driver. It is very difficult to pull that off especially when he spins off the road on the first curve. Books like The Third Brother paint a comic book picture of Bangkok, the residence, the culture, the religion, the nightlife. How did such a book ever come to be published? Obviously someone liked wild dogs and little fires as a way to win over readers.

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