How does one really judge the entertainment value of a book? Timothy Hallinan’s book in the Bangkok Fiction genre, The Queen of Patpong (2010, ISBN 978-0-06-167226-2), caused us here at WoWasis to ask, and here’s why. We finished this 312 page book, the latest update in the ongoing saga of travel writer Poke Rafferty and his family, in two nights. At a published price of $24.99, that’s $12.50 a night for two evenings worth of entertainment. Less than a movie and popcorn, less than most bottles of cabernet, less than a baseball game. Of course we could have taken longer to read it, but it was damned enthralling that we couldn’t put it down.
Readers of Hallinan’s previous novels will not be shocked that his family is again in peril, this time from a shadowy westerner from his wife Rose’s bargirl past. What Hallinan brings to this book is the story of Rose’s personal history, from growing up in a poor Thai Isaan village to getting sold as a virgin into a bar on Bangkok’s Patpong Road. In telling that tale, he introduces our favorite character in the book, Nana, an older village girl who finagles Rose’s surreptitious and sudden train ride to Bangkok. We won’t reveal the nuances of this remarkably rich element of the plot here, but what we found exceptional was the dialogue between the experienced-beyond-her-years Nana, and the shy village girl Rose. Many previous Bangkok Fiction novels dealing with similar thematic material tell a story considerably like this one, but none we’ve read have the richness of dialogue in the interplay of what is essentially a sales situation, where Nana sells the reluctant teen on the value of going to Bangkok. Hallinan takes 20 pages to do it, and it’s a masterpiece in the art of objection-handling.
Here’s an excerpt from that dialogue. Kwan is Rose’s village name, and here Nana works on convincing her that by going with her, rather than the people to whom Kwan’s father would be selling her, Kwan will have at least some control over her life:
” … I’m not going.”
“You’re even thicker than I was afraid you’d be.” Nana takes a long, angry drag that turns the coal on her cigarette a brilliant, hellish red.
Kwan looks away from it, letting the darkness soothe her eyes. “You haven’t asked the important question.”
“What is it? What’s the important question?”
“What happens if you don’t go with me. And don’t talk to me about your wonderful teacher. She can’t do anything.”
Kwan lifts her feet again and puts them on the bench, her long legs folded vertically in front of her, knees as high as her chin. She puts her hands, fingers spread, on top of the familiar curve of her bent knees.
Nothing there comforts her. Her knees feel like they belong to someone else. “What happens?”
Nana looks down at the cigarette in her hand and then drops it into the dust. She shifts the blanket a little, making sure Kwan is covered, and slides closer, so that Kwan can feel the other girl’s body warmth and smell something sweet and flowery on her loose, thin clothes.
Nana sighs. “Day after tomorrow, on your way home from school, three men will grab you. They’ll wait until you’re walking alone. They’ll cover your mouth with tape and put these tight things on your wrists that will hold them behind your back. They might do that to your feet, too. They’ll throw you into the back of a car and drive you to Bangkok. One man will drive. Two will sit in back. They’ll touch you any way they want to, but they won’t do anything that would cost their bosses the money they’re going to make from selling you as a virgin. But they can think of plenty of things to do without that. By the time you get to Bangkok, you’ll feel like filth.”
“My father wouldn’t do that to me.”
Nana doesn’t say anything- Kwan closes her eyes and listens to thefrogs as they sing the songs she’s heard her entire life. She feels a tear slide down her cheek. She says, “Then what?”
“You’ll be taken to a house. It’ll be dirty, and it’ll have windows that don’t open. Some of the rooms will have bars on the windows.”
“What do you think this is about? You think you’re going to work in a flower shop? You’re going to be in some filthy, rat-filled cement house in Bangkok with bars on the windows and a lock on the door. You’re going to get put into a room with a bed in it and a bucket to pee in, and you’re going to stay in that room for months without ever going out. You’ll get fucked, you’ll rest, you’ll get fucked again. They’ll bring you some food, and then you’ll get fucked again. At night you’ll sleep in the same bed you fucked in all day, with the sheets still dirty from all those men, and whenever a new man comes, no matter what time it is, they’ll wake you up and you’ll have to fuck him. Doesn’t matter if he’s fat, filthy, drunk, mean, ugly, smelly, toothless, diseased. Doesn’t matter if he wants to slap you around. You’ll fuck him. Every day, seven days a week, all year long. For two or three years, until you’ve paid back the sixty thousand baht they paid your father, and they’ll cheat you on that. They’ll charge you rent for the room they lock you in, they’ll charge you for sheets and towels, for food. Whatever it costs them, they’ll charge three times as much. Until you’ve paid back every baht of the sixty thousand, plus interest.”
Tough dialogue, but one that probably occurs in some village in Isaan every day. Selling their daughters is one way many parents get money to pay off gambling debts, provide ongoing income, you name it. Hallinan’s characters are solid and realistic. His descriptions of individuals, scenes, and plot are compelling. While all the characters in this novel are interesting, Nana’s, for our money, was the most thought-provoking, a persona not often met in the West, but pervasive in Thailand. All in all, worthy reading for students of Thai culture and great mystery writing alike. Buy it now at the WoWasis estore, powered by Amazon.