I Know I Lost Something
When I lived on Phuket I worked in a very fancy hotel owned by a member of the royal family, and we did a lot of very fancy things to promote the place to a particular very fancy class of tourist and expatriate. We had an art gallery and every month we’d host a new artist. We had a music room and every month we’d host members of the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra for a concert of chamber music. We had an excellent kitchen, best on the island some said, and once a month we’d host a famous European or Chinese chef for a gala dinner. We had service out on our beach that was better than the service in the dining rooms of most hotels on Phuket. We had the best wine cellar in Southeast Asia, according to Wine Spectator Magazine.
And we had a very fancy cupola room two stories over the beach, surrounded 360 degrees by French doors that opened onto the emerald mountains, the glassy sea, the expensive yachts and the extravagant sunsets. In that room we’d host the Chao Phraya River Club Literary Society, a very fancy name for what anywhere else would be simply called a book club. On its surface the CPRC Literary Society was a way to draw attention to the very fancy hotel, which was my job, but at its core it was a way for me to throw free rooms, meals and wine to my friends. Once the word got out I was amazed to learn how many writers there are between Bangkok, Singapore and Hong Kong. Anybody coming to Thailand to write a book on exotic aphrodisiacs or a newspaper article on the best golf resorts in Asia would make a side trip to Phuket for a free weekend at my very fancy hotel. The express bus from Bangkok did a brisk trade in Asia Books novelists and their families.
We normally hosted up to fifty people in our very fancy cupola room for these events. We’d have a bartender serving the very fancy featured wine of the night. The guest of honor would read a bit and answer questions and then sit back with a stack of his or her books and wait for the autograph session. Before the autographs anybody who wanted to could take the microphone and read from whatever they liked, something of their own or something else. The only rule was you couldn’t read for more than five minutes.
As I’ve never been fond of wine, the open microphone was always my favorite portion of the evening. We had our regulars, like Shankar, an Austrian guy in his seventies who had spent 20 years on an ashram in India and was currently in his tenth year of writing an epic reference book on the Tarot. He would read his incredibly dense prose, full of mysterious words none of us had ever heard before, in an accent that was two parts Sigmund Freud and one part Gandhi. When you saw Shankar around the island he was always on a huge 400-cc motorcycle, and he always had two extremely young bar girls on the back. The very fancy hotel had a “No Joiners” policy so he didn’t bring his girlfriends to the Literary Society meetings, and he did not let the valets park his motorcycle.
Marque was the DJ on our local English-language radio station, and he wrote eloquent and elegant essays, full of archaic language and byzantine thought, on subjects political and sexual. The audience almost always reacted with shouts and boos, but everybody was disappointed on the nights Marque didn’t show up. Marque was well liked if his opinions were not. Richard, the Swiss sommelier at the very fancy hotel, wrote wine reviews, and delivered them in a Maurice Chevalier accent that was like music. Peter was Asian Indian, had grown up in British Honduras and had a romantic notion of frontier America. He read poetry. Kona Kai was a madman, a seriously deluded individual who had gone off his meds the day he stepped off the plane. He read from his personal history, which was complete fabrication, but so interesting nobody ever challenged him. When his son showed up on the island to drag Kona Kai back to Hawaii for inpatient treatment we were all sad to see him go.
Once the star and the regulars had warmed up the crowd, you never knew who would climb on the soapbox next. Oddballs, crackpots, spinster schoolmarms, long-distance sailors, writers and readers of every age, gender and nationality came up the stairs to the very fancy cupola room, pulled folded yellow sheets of paper out of their shirt pockets or purses and cleared their throats at the microphone. It was amazing, and wonderful, and once my disastrous marriage had turned Phuket into a prison for me, it was always the best evening of my month.
One night Don showed up. I don’t remember who the guest of honor was that night, or which of the regulars read before Don, but I can remember Don’s reading clearly, even though it’s been almost twenty years since it happened. He was a thin man of medium build, in shorts and a blue work shirt, with an incongruous red bandana tied around his neck, like a cowboy. He introduced himself, said he lived on Koh Samui and had come to Phuket just to visit the Lit Society, and then he read an essay.
It was an essay about what it was like for him to make a dinner of rice and fried fish on the porch of his bungalow on some sparsely populated beach on Koh Samui. (There were still sparsely populated beaches on Koh Samui twenty years ago.) It was a beautiful piece of writing. Simple and direct, lyrical and whimsical, funny and sad. Normally people were not shy about getting up and going to the bar during a reading, but nobody moved during Don’s story. He had us all right there on the porch with him; we could smell the garlic frying with the fish, hear the palm fronds brushing against the tin roof of his bungalow and taste the scotch he drank while he waited for his supper to be done. And most magically, we could feel exactly what Don felt in his heart when he wrote that essay. We all felt, deep inside us, the slightly melancholy peace that settles on a man when he knows he’s alone in a perfect place, doing exactly what he should be doing in that place, but doing it alone. And we all laughed, because Don was a funny man, in a quiet, very subtle and subversive way.
When he finished there was a long silence in the very fancy cupola room. I felt like I had to say something, so I leaned into the microphone and said, “Well, um… I guess the bar’s just been raised.” And everybody broke at once; everybody was shouting questions at Don: “Where do you come from?” “How long have you lived in Thailand?” “Are you published?” Don, who you should remember lived alone on an almost deserted beach, was a little taken aback by the attention, but also obviously pleased to find out his story was not awful. He’d never shown the story to anybody. He’d never shown anything he’d written to anybody before that night, and he said he had a whole box of stories like this one back in his bungalow on Koh Samui.
That very fancy cupola room was full of people who lived on million-dollar yachts or in million-dollar condominiums. There were people on vacation from their jobs running multinational corporations back in Hong Kong and London, and people who worked in the management of five-star resorts. The wine, even discounted for the evening, was two hundred baht per glass, about four times the price of a bottle of beer on Patong Beach. This was an audience of people who lived, or at least vacationed, in paradise, but in that moment they all wanted to live with Don in his bamboo shack on the beach. His story was just that good.
After the meeting I asked Don if he wanted to take a walk up the beach and smoke a joint. I tried not to smoke right in front of the very fancy hotel where I worked, but the Club Med next door had hundreds of comfy deck chairs out on the sand that were always empty at midnight. Don joined me and in the moonlight I asked him what he wanted to do with his writing. He said that he’d worked in the family business in Chicago his whole life but always wanted to be a writer. He’d never married, sold the business for a lot of money while he was still fairly young and moved to Koh Samui. He’d been planning to move on to India but before he left he wanted to get some feedback on his writing.
I gave him the name of the editor of the Phuket Gazette and wished him luck. I meant it. I thought he had real talent and I liked him as a person. I looked forward to reading more of his stuff.
Shortly after this encounter I left Phuket suddenly and permanently. I did not expect my time in Thailand to end that way, but it was by my own choice and the measure of a man is not the decisions he makes but how he lives with the decisions he has made. Don stayed in Thailand for a while and sent me a few letters, this being before e-mail ever came to the sparsely populated beaches of Koh Samui. He told me that he was having success selling his stories to local magazines and newspapers and thanked me for my early encouragement. He said he was publishing a book, and I was happy for him.
I didn’t receive any more letters from Don and I supposed he had moved on to India. I got divorced, my life in America went from bad to worse and I withdrew from all my old friends in Thailand. We were all dinosaurs, not yet comfortable with e-mail or social networking, so it was fairly easy to drop off their radar. I was ashamed of my new life and ashamed of myself. I put Thailand behind me and focused on my self-pity.
And then about four years later I got an e-mail out of the blue from Don. He said he was back in Thailand and he’d just published his third book. He offered to have his “American agent” send me copies, as he really wanted my input. I wish I could say I was delighted for the guy I’d known for that one evening on Phuket. But I wasn’t. I was jealous and sad that it was him and not me. I dreaded receiving the books.
When they came I let them linger for months before I read them. After a while Don wrote and asked if I’d read them yet, and so I picked up the first one and began to read. The first two books were collections of short fiction and nonfiction, and the first story in the first book was the story I’d heard Don read aloud in the very fancy cupola room: the making dinner on the porch story. It was just as beautiful as I remembered it. It was winter, in Iowa. I was deep in debt and deeper in clinical depression. Reading again about that perfect evening of leisure on a sparsely populated Thai beach, reading of scotch and fish and rice and the ocean breeze, broke my heart.
I continued to read, and I enjoyed the first five or six stories after that one. But then a curious thing happened. I enjoyed each successive story less and less. The writing was growing haphazard and rushed. I could recognize that I was reading a lot of first draft. It felt like the stories were published in the order in which they were written, and as he warmed to his task the author was becoming sloppy. There was a lot of self-indulgent writing creeping in. The book badly, very badly, needed the firm hand of an editor. And I began to suspect that Don had paid to publish the book himself. The second book confirmed it. The third book was awful. The third book was a novelette-length memoir, written in what I took to be an attempt at magical realism. It was self-aggrandizing and dull as a business report on soya bean futures. It droned on and on and on and on.
And I gloated. It pains me now to remember, but if I had been a badly drawn character in a novel I would have wrung my hands and chortled with glee. The writing of that third book was just so awful, the sad conclusion to a brief career that started with such high hopes, and I took enormous pleasure in witnessing the downfall of a man who, had I not left Phuket so suddenly, might have become one of my best friends. I was jealous that he had his name on three books, even if he had paid for them himself, and their lack of quality made me happy.
I’m not proud of it. That’s just the way I was ten years ago. That’s where my head was at. I’m even less proud of the fact that a couple of months later, when Don e-mailed me to ask again, “So? Did you read them?” I responded with a five-thousand word critique that was jagged and spiky and dripping with poison. I quoted his worst writing by page and paragraph. I was snide, I was cynical, I was unmerciful, I was completely humorless. I was cruel.
And of course, I never heard from Don again. Today his three books are listed on Amazon and he has a web site to market them, with a “contact the author” button. But I wouldn’t know what to say to the guy. Too much water under the bridge, too much caustic bile between my lips. I was a prick and I lost a friend, or almost a friend, maybe just the possibility of a friend. I know I lost something.
I wish I still had the books around. I’d like to go back and read them again. I’ll bet now, when my life is a little more pleasant and I’m a little more pleasant, they’re more pleasant too. Perhaps they’re not really as bad as I thought they were. Even if they were as bad as I thought they were, it still profited me nothing to tell him so. The Iowa winter was still just as cold, the big empty house still just as lonely, my own writing career still just as dead. You would think I could learn from this. You would think that I might not be so quick to judge other writers.
You would think that, but you’d be wrong.