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.