Here’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.