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Hustle the East eimage
In a land torn by lies, it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys.

A semi-idealistic American college graduate arrives in Southeast Asia intending to set a good example. An orphan on the Plain of Jars becomes a Buddhist monk and embodies compassion until the bombs begin to fall. A headstrong young woman with royal blood must decide which of her suitors to marry and whether to flee from her country. Against a background of actual events, three narratives unspool to tell a tale of corruption and betrayal, commitment and love.

ISBN: 978-1-68433-145-1
Printed in the United States of America
Suggested Retail Price (SRP) $20.95

Based on A True Fantasy

Before a showing of “Bohemian Rhapsody” I viewed a movie trailer that began with the advisory, “Based on A True Fantasy.”

People who are reading the new novel Hustle the East are asking if I am Benny Bendit, the American teacher, or Jack Gaines, the American antihero. I am neither. Neither is based on what I did, although it is a true fact that like both Benny and Jack Gaines, I am an American who taught in Laos during the novel’s central timeframe, 1973-1976. Even so, I am no more these characters than I am Freddy Mercury, and I did not personally experience the adventures and romance of Hustle the East any more than I toured with the band Queen.

Fiction is fantasy.

One might imagine that the creators of Mary Poppins, Miss Doubtfire and Peter Pan’s Nana had nannies, or knew of nannies in the neighborhood. Obviously, the household helpers who inspired the movie characters did not do the fantastic things the characters in the movie did.

Hustle the East introduces readers to more than two dozen fictional characters. Ten are Americans, 16 are Laotians, one is French, one British, and one Filipino. All of them are products of the author’s imagination, although it’s safe to say some resemble individuals I read about, heard about, or fictionalized from a real person who held a similar position.

I rejected the publisher’s Standard Disclosure Statement that attests: “Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.” I replaced it with this one: “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner.”

It’s no coincidence that the story is populated with some real people because the fictional sweep of Hustle the East takes place against a backdrop of actual historical events. The novel includes historical mentions or cameo appearances related to a score of historical figures, including presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, presidential adviser Henry Kissinger, two U.S. ambassadors to Laos, and a dozen Laotian statesmen and military leaders. Quotes attributed to them are either actual statements or the author’s idea of what they might have said had they been put in the fictional situation the author put them in.

Enjoy the story. You could say it’s based on a true fantasy.

The title “Hustle the East”

The title Hustle the East for a new novel about Southeast Asia comes from a poem by Rudyard Kipling.

Born in Bombay in 1865, Joseph Rudyard Kipling was an immensely popular author and chronicler of the British Empire. In the West he is best known for his tales of the East including Jungle Book, Just So Stories and Kim, and his poems “Gunga Din” and “The White Man’s Burden.” Though his fellow English essayist George Orwell condemned Kipling as a morally insensitive, jingoistic imperialist, children around the world were enthralled by his stories and Nobel Prize judges awarded him the Prize for Literature in 1907. His collected works were published under the title The White Man’s Poet.

For English writers of Kipling’s generation “the East” often meant India, but it could mean anywhere East of Suez, including the Persian Gulf, South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Far East. While Kipling lived for years in India and what is now Pakistan, he traveled to Rangoon, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan. He also traveled extensively in the United States, and in 1891, he married an American woman and settled with her in Brattleboro, Vermont.  It was there, with snow piled up against the window, that Kipling conceived the stories of Mowgli and his jungle chums. Kipling once showed up uninvited at fellow tale-spinner Mark Twain’s door in Elmira, New York, and the two literary lions had a roaring good time together.

The phrase “hustle the East” occurs in Kipling’s poem “Naulahka,” which describes social interaction in Rajpur, India.

Kipling wrote:

“Now it is not good for the Christian’s health to hustle the Aryan brown                          For the Christian riles, and the Aryan smiles and he weareth the Christian down          And the end of the fight is a tombstone white with the name of the late deceased          And the epitaph drear: “A Fool lies here who tried to hustle the East.”

Here’s an excerpt


1 – Love It or Leave It

My time in Laos taught me that even I was not the person I thought I was. An ordinarily apathetic American, the son of CPAs, I never imagined I would be tossed in jail for killing a prostitute. Back then I wasn’t a murderer. Murder, with premeditation, came much later.

As the newest teacher in the Buddhist kingdom, I resolved I would do everything by the book. I would rely on my good intentions to pave the road ahead. As good intentions often do, mine led me to a place I hadn’t planned to go. It took me a while to figure out that in Laos, the good guys were the bad guys. Who knew that the American saviors of Asian democracy, who bragged they’d never lost a war, would abandon their lofty undertaking and ditch loyal allies without warning?

Jack Gaines was one of the Americans who came to save the Kingdom from Communism, and stayed around to watch it fall. Like Asia itself, Gaines was a charmer and a seducer. I disliked him from the get-go. Based on what I heard about his caddish behavior, I summarily condemned him for his lack of couth and civility. Decades later, I can still see him smile and hear him say, How much civility do you expect in a civil war?

In February 1973, Laos was squooshed between Thailand, which was fighting to remain free, and Vietnam, which was freefalling into Communism. The civil war in Laos was a sideshow in the Vietnam War. “Laos was only the wart on the hog,” a U.S. diplomat once observed undiplomatically. But, as Gaines would say, Oh, what a wart it was!

To this day, when I think of Laos I wonder if it’s possible for love to grow true in a place poisoned by lies and deception.

. . . . .

An open-air motorboat ferried me across the milewide Mekong River from Thailand. Upon landing on a muddy bank, I scrambled up ahead of the other passengers to reach Royal Lao Immigration and Customs. Royal though it was, the Immigration office was a shack no bigger than a telephone booth back home. I presented my passport to a ruddy-faced officer in a green uniform and high-peaked hat.

“Patpawt no good more three days,” he said. He admitted me to the Kingdom anyway.

A decade earlier, my parents had made us passports for a trip to Hawaii.As a consequence of my old man’s colossal incompetence, I was condemned to spend precious hours of my first day in Laos renewing my passport.

Arriving in Vientiane, more bad luck. I checked out the Sanook Hotel but couldn’t check in. The no-stars Sanook had been highly recommended by a hippie I’d met in Bangkok, who’d just come down from Laos still high.

“Up in Vieng, you can buy dope by the kilo,” the hippie told me. “Old grannies sell it at the Morning Market. They make soup with it, Man. I shit you not.”

“What about the war?” I asked.

“It’s far from the capital. You’ll never even know it’s there.”

“I heard a rumor about a ceasefire.”

“Yeah, that rumor’s been around for years.”

After waiting for what seemed to be years, a reedy Lao man of indeterminate age appeared before me like an apparition. I handed my passport to the anemic desk clerk.

“I’m Benny Bendit,” I said.

“Say here Paur,” said the clerk.

“Paul Bendit is my real name. Benny is a nickname.”

“You name Nick?”

“No, Paul. But you can call me Benny. I need a room.”

“No loom. Maybe rater.”

“How much later?” I asked.

“Yes,” said the clerk.

It was not yet eight a.m. Roomless, restless and afflicted by the hotel’s ailing air-conditioning, I ordered coffee.

“Nohm, or no nohm?” asked the clerk who was also the barista. The coffee cup of my brain was brimming with incomprehension.

“Nohm it mean lady’s boob and also mean milk,” the gaunt man explained.

“Kafe nohm it mean kafe wit’ milk.”

Ten minutes later, I got my kafe nohm. Lao coffee was a mountain-grownArabica blessed with a unique flavor and blended with chicory to stretch the meager crop. Kafe nohm was served in a three-inch high glass with a half-sized spoon atop a saucer. Wallowing in the bottom of the glass was an inch-thick dollop of sweetened condensed milk. In a quaint custom that defied a coffeelover’s logic, Lao coffee was always served with a glass of weak Chinese tea. Coffee comes with tea. Welcome to Laos.

At quarter to nine, the kafe nohm was a sweet memory. The weak tea had miraculously washed away the sticky-milk residue of the coffee. I removed my passport and Traveler’s Cheques from my Samsonite and made sure to lock it.

“Is it safe to leave my suitcase until a room becomes available?” I asked the druggy-eyed clerk.

“You come back too soon,” he said.

“Is it O.K. to leave it here for half an hour?”


“How about one hour?”


I looked into the young old man’s dilated eyes.

“You don’t understand English, do you?”


Passport in hand, I set off for the U.S. Embassy. I was confident I could conclude my embassy business, check into the hotel, and collect a teaching certificate before the end of the day, maybe even before noon. My unfettered

enthusiasm belied my unbound naïvete. As a newbie, I had no inkling this would be a red-letter day in the Kingdom’s six-hundred-year history, a date that would live in anti-Communist infamy.

On the streets of Vientiane the first thing that hits you is the capital’s signature fragrance, an eau d’égout that emanates from open sewage trenches. The next is the feeling that a soggy blanket of moist air is smothering you. Sweatingbullets, I trod a treacherous pedestrian terrain over tilted and cracked sidewalks.

Rue Samsenethai was a jumble of two-story shophouses that mingled the sights and smells of Siam, China and India with those of France, Corsica and the Hippie Trail. The main drag’s distinctive characteristic was a mélange of

motorcycle fumes mixed with the pungent aromas of curry, incense and the Vietnamese soup called ph. There were few cars. Three-wheeled bicycle taxis took up the prime parking at the Constellation Hotel. Samlor drivers parked willy-nilly near the curb, sitting on their bicycle seat, or lounging on the passenger seat under its canvas awning.

In Rue Chanthakhoummane, I discovered a dilapidated bell-shaped Buddhist monument. Tufts of grass and little trees reached out from its cracks. The sooty pile of broken bricks and century-old mortar looked like a twelve-layer cake topped by a stone party hat. Plopped down in the middle of the road, the resolute black hunk compelled traffic to circulate around it. What a stupid place to place an ancient monument! A quarter of the way round it, I caughtmsight of an American flag flapping high above a canopy of flame trees.

The U.S. Embassy compound stood on Rue Bartholoni, a short street named for a French aristocrat who drowned when a mail boat went down in the Mekong River. Behind equally high walls, the Consulate stood on one side of

the shady little street, the Chancery on the other. Within the ramparts, the whitewashed buildings were chockablock with puffy-faced, paunchy Americans. The diplomats who were fighting a war within a war wore a hangdog expression that foretold the futility of their mission.

The first time I saw Jack Gaines he was standing ahead of me in the queue for the Embassy cashier. It was impossible to ignore a big lug with bushy blond hair in a loud Hawaiian shirt. Even from the back, his posture was an affront. He continually shifted his leggy weight from one buffalo-hide sandal to another.

Sensing my stare, Gaines turned around and flashed a toothy grin. Jeez, I thought. This guy’s got gleaming teeth, a tan like he just got off a beach, and a physique like he spends all day in the gym. But landlocked Laos had no beach and at the time there weren’t enough health-conscious foreigners to support a fitness club. Not only did he lack a gym, he lacked good manners. He was so American. Here was a prime example of the kind of American in Asia I intended to avoid.

As the idiot in the Hawaiian shirt advanced to the window, I caught a glimpse of the graceful Lao woman behind the narrow brass bars of the cashier’s cage. Craning my neck, I could see the cashier wore an immaculate white blouse. Atop her smiling face, her shiny black hair was piled high in a chignon adorned with gold ornaments. Admiration for the cashier melted away when the lout in the loud shirt waved a check in her face as if there were no bars between them.

“Look, Dollface,” said the toothy check-waver. “You really have to cash this. It’s got my name on it: Jack Gaines. You know me: Jack Gaines, The All-American Boy.” I was irritated by the way Jack Gaines The All-American Boy was treating the angelic cashier. Despite the rude treatment she was getting from Gaines, the cashier delivered her refusal to cash his check with a certain sweetness.

“Sorry, I no can do, Mister Jack,” she said. It was customary in Laos to use the honorific Mister with a person’s first name.

Mister Jack kept up the verbal barrage.

“Look here, this is a perfectly good check in perfectly good U.S. dollars. If I paid any taxes, I’d be paying your salary.”

“You choking me, Mister Jack.”

To Lao speakers of English, “joking” and “choking” were homonyms. However, the pretty cashier’s meaning was clear when she added, “You too funny.”

“O.K.,” said the badgerer. “If you won’t cash my check, you can come to my house and swallow my one-eyed snake.”

That did it. I’d had enough of The All-American Boy.

“Excuse me,” I said to Gaines. “But I’m in a hurry.”

“Take it easy, Buddy Boy,” said Gaines. “This is Laos. There’s no such thing as a hurry here.”

He turned to leave, slowly. Like he said, no hurry. Making a mental note to ignore Gaines if I ever saw him again, I stepped up to the lovely doe-eyed woman in the cashier’s cage. I felt the need to apologize on behalf of the

American people.

“Miss, I’m really sorry about that guy,” I said.

The pretty cashier accepted my payment without looking up. As I stammered on about Gaines’s rudeness, she completed the transaction.

“Hav’a ni’ day,” she said.

Outside the iron gates that cloistered American envoys in the capital, I remembered I’d forgotten to register with Consular Affairs as new residents were supposed to do, supposedly for their own safety. In any case, I wasn’t keen to let Uncle Sam know what I was doing in Laos. Of course Uncle Sam would find out eventually.

Only yards away, I saw a copper-skinned old man in a pith helmet and khaki shorts peeling fruit behind a fly-infested wooden cart. Watching the old man at work, I wondered if his paring knife carried the Plague. Suddenly pebbles were

flying. A black Mercury sedan careened around the corner, looking twice as big in Laos as a Merc looks in Illinois. The big black car screeched to a halt in front of the fruit cart. An American in a crewcut, dark suit and opaque sunglasses jumped out and leapt in front of the fruit vendor.

“Move, Old Man,” he shouted.

Half a second later, he shoved the shirtless vendor and his glass-paneled cart sideways into a sewage ditch. I could hear glass panes crack and I saw the vendor’s pith helmet land in the sewage. From six feet away, I was frozen by the senseless violence. My mouth was agape when the bully from the cashier’s cage rushed up to the dark-suit and stared him straight in the sunglasses.

“This isn’t your goddamn country,” Gaines told the crewcut.

The man turned his head from Gaines to surveil the road as a caravan of late-model Cadillacs passed behind him and swept into the Chancery. The security agent scurried into the compound behind the motorcade.

Gaines called after him. “That old cut-fruit man couldn’t give a shit about Kissinger.”

I was bewildered. “Kissinger’s here?” I asked.

“Henry Heinz Albert Wolfgang Kissinger, the traitor. He should be shot.”

“He got the Paris Peace Accords signed, didn’t he?”

“The Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam? Believe me, there’s no agreement, and signing their names won’t end the war or restore peace in Vietnam. You know what a spook told me? He said Kiss looked Duc Tho in the eye, and told him: ‘I’m not shitting you. This guy Nixon is a crazy fucker. If you don’t sign this, there’s no telling what he’ll do.’ Wouldn’t it be a hoot if Kissinger gets the Nobel Peace Prize for that?”

“Faux memoirs” of a fascinating time

Hustle the East eimageHere’s a new novel that tells a touching story of love and loss while touching all bases of Ugly Americanness. Three narrators trace the tragic history of Laos as a pawn in the Cold War, shedding light on America’s immoral and inhumane bombing campaign.

In what the author calls “faux memoirs,” we witness the turbulent downfall of a centuries-old monarchy through the eyes of an American teacher and two Laotians of starkly different backgrounds. The future of the Kingdom of Laos and the lives of the narrators come under the shadow of reckless Americans back when America thought it was invincible. The repercussions of what happened in the Seventies last for decades, into the new Millennium.

The American narrator Paul “Benny” Bendit is a straight-arrow straight out of college in Illinois. As a newbie, he naively imagines he can help erase the image of the Ugly American in Southeast Asia. On his first day in Laos, Bendit glimpses Henry Kissinger on a historic peace mission that has dark implications for the 600-year-old kingdom. Bendit also meets Jack Gaines, a feckless fellow teacher who’s siphoning money out of hopeless situations. From the get-go, Bendit marks Gaines as a charlatan. But seen through other eyes, Gaines is a complex con artist, a loathsome and lovable bad guy. In retrospect, Bendit observes, “… In Laos the good guys were the bad guys.”

The second narrator is an orphan of colonialism who became a monk and a gravedigger. Sangkhom notes wryly that he and Gaines were born on opposite sides of the world and they started out on opposite side of the war. When East twains with West, their fates become entwined — but only as far as the next plot twist.

In the opinion of the third narrator, the enigmatic Lao ingénue Chansamone, Gaines is like a centipede: “The first two legs don’t tell the whole story.” A complicated love triangle arises out of chaos but the course of love doesn’t run true in a country on the verge of collapse.

Borrowing pages from The Ugly American, this new novel is like a Who’s Who of (Fictional) Americans Mucking About in Southeast Asia. Apart from Bendit and Gaines, we meet half a dozen Americans attempting to influence history or hustle the East. Tommy Mangold was a helicopter pilot and bona fide war hero in Vietnam before giving up his Air Force wings to work as a civilian in Laos. As an aid worker, he worked behind the scenes and below the radar to defend democracy in Asia. On the day Kissinger comes to Vientiane, Mangold curses all he’s done in the name of the democracy, and does a 360.

Mohawk Jones was born to missionaries in the mountains that merge northern Thailand with Laos. His knowledge of highlands culture and languages made him invaluable to America’s efforts to win the hearts and minds and military service of the Hmong and other mountain dwellers. Recruited by the C.I.A., Jones abandons the Gospel and trains the highlanders to kill for Freedom and Good Old Uncle Sam.

Ernest Leitner is a widower who landed in Laos after selling his farm. If he wasn’t so short, Leitner could have stood in for the pitchfork-wielding Iowa farmer in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” Obviously patterned after one of the good guys in The Ugly American, Leitner is an agricultural adviser who’s spending his life savings to lift Hmong farmers out of poverty. A saint among the scoundrels sent by USAID, Letiner makes personal sacrifices to improve the lives of Laotians displaced by bombs.

Warren Rippington delivers the milk and hard rice (ammo) for the C.I.A.’s Air America. The fearless mercenary pilot admires President Nixon’s anti-Communist gumption. But when the course of history takes a wrong turn, even a gung-ho guy like Rippington can shed a tear. Unbelievably it’s not the Communists but Congress that brings Humpty Dumpty down.

Stanford Oh is a Korean-American Vietnam War veteran who serves as a Consular Affairs officer for the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane. When a fellow American is arrested by Lao Communists, Consul Oh advises him to confess to everything. In a newly communist country, the diplomat doesn’t know if it’s worse for an American to be charged with murder, espionage or anti-social behavior.

The author rejected the standard Disclosure Statement that states: “Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.” That’s because the fictional sweep of Hustle the East takes place against a backdrop of actual historical events. It’s no coincidence that readers learn more about the actual persons named Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Kissinger, Dr. Tom Dooley and a pair of American ambassadors who directed the bombing of Laos.

Now available on Amazon.com and at Barnes & Noble.

Time-traveling in Laos

Many people tell me they want to visit Laos but few do. If you’re like the 1970s college graduate in Hustle the East, you collected stamps and envisioned the Kingdom of Laos as a placid land of Buddhist pagodas, ubiquitous elephants and pretty girls planting rice.

If you haven’t seen Laos for yourself, this new book will take you there. You’ll see and smell the streets of the capital Vientiane, crisscross the Plain of Jars, and get drenched in the Water Festival in the Royal Capital of Luang Prabang. You’ll travel overland on foot through jungle-clad forests, taking in the amazing flora and fauna and age-old lifestyle of communities at the 3,000-foot elevation above the Mekong plain. You’ll cross the Mekong River into Thailand and be sorry you did.

In this highly cinematic tale, you’ll be bewildered to learn that thick mountain-grown coffee is served with Chinese tea while baguettes and croissants are devoured with spicy-hot Lao cuisine. Laos is a place where Buddhists preached age-old lessons of Peace and Tolerance while greedy politicians kept changing sides in a three-sided civil war.

An American character who’s taking advantage of the chaos describes Laos as “a Buddhist paradise in a perpetual state of Confucian confusion… In ancient times, they called it Lan Xang, the Kingdom of A Million Elephants. Now it’s the Kingdom of A Million Irrelevants. Except no one knows how many Laotians there are because there’s never been a census.”

There’s a heap of history, sprinkled throughout the adventures of three narrators over three decades.

Hustle the East takes you time-traveling through the history of America’s treacherous involvement in this unassuming little country but it doesn’t tell the story chronologically. The first narrator, the American college kid Benny Bendit, introduces you to an exotic land of lotus-eating foreigners, including G.I.s and C.I.A. agents hiding in plain sight in bars and brothels. While sampling the fleshpots of Vientiane in 1973 and 1974, Bendit stumbles upon the Ugly Side of Paradise. Less than a hundred miles from the capital, there’s a war raging. It’s a brutal war that topples the American-backed government in December 1975. But that’s neither the start nor the end of a multifaceted story that begins in the French colonial era and ripples across the seas into the new Millennium.

The novel dips deeply into the lives of a colorful cast of Laotians and it is largely through their eyes that you learn what the American carpetbaggers in their country are up to. While the Americans are taking advantage of their hosts, it is not entirely a one-way street as Laotians, especially Lao women, are doing their best to get what they can from American interlopers while they can.

At the start of the Secret War, Tommy Mangold and Mohawk Jones are Jekyll and Hyde characters working to keep the Lao people free of Communism. A decade later, they’re deciding whether to help their Asian allies or help themselves. Like Nixon and his cunning strategist Kissinger, the Americans are committed to defend freedom and self-determination for Asian peoples until it’s politically expedient not to.

Along the way, you’ll celebrate the many holidays in the Lao calendar including a trio of New Year’s festivals. You’ll be present at a Lao bullfight that has no matadors, traditional Lao boat races and skyrocket competitions, and a buffalo sacrifice ceremony that portends the future. You’ll see the wisdom in Lao folk sayings, learn how to catch crabs in a rice paddy, and appreciate the difficulty many Asians have in learning English. You’ll get tangled up in corruption and Communism, heroism and heroin.

This is a story of Laos, warts and all. When Bendit asks Gaines why he’s staying on as the Kingdom crumbles, Gaines says: “Laos – love it or leave it. Hell, I love it.” Chances are, you will too.