A White in the Jungle
Every once in a while there comes a novel so bad that you are given to wondering what possessed the author to have written it, and why, as the seconds of your short life depart never to be recovered, you happen to be reading it. Maybe the cover or the font looks nice, or maybe it's better on the whole than staring at the ceiling or picking your toes. But what is more likely is that you actually derive a perverse pleasure from jotting down all the novel's inadequacies, or that you rather come to admire or pity the author's perseverance, similar to that of a gymnast doggedly completing her already botched routine.
Jungle White by Stephen Paul Cohen has all the elements of a novel liable to be popular with English-speaking, middle-aged males interested in the Asian underworld. It has DEA agents, Hmong rebels, explicit sex; much of it takes place in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and the kind of indeterminate jungle regions accessible to the latter city's tour operators. It has fast cars, loose women, explosions, and more f-words than you could ever hope for. It has all these things, and more. But why? What, if anything, is the book's reason for being?
The narrator Scott Leader is a divorced narc recovering from ulcers who is chosen for a special assignment, an assignment so special that not even the CIA is supposed to be involved in it. His mission, should he choose to accept it, is to isolate the source of Jungle White, heroin in which America's pristine Christian streets have suddenly become awash. To this end he assumes a new identity (Joe Cady), gets a hot Ferrari, and insinuates himself into the company of a Sino-Thai named Smoke, a drug trafficker posing as a travel agent in oblivious San Francisco. From that city he heads to Bangkok, where he meets an almost nymphomaniacal Western woman named Robin. By this point we are firmly in the genre of male fantasy, and the ensuing sex scenes read like those letters to Penthouse or whatever that begin "I know this sounds crazy, but one day my maid...." The author should be given some marks for creativity, however: at least the nympho's not Thai.
Smoke by his side, Joe sets about establishing a "pipeline" of smack to the states. The negotiations become so esoteric that calculators become essential. And at some point it becomes clear that the narc is so mystified by the profits involved that he has lost sight of his mission. Whereupon things get rather messy. Smoke kills an American spook. Robin takes bullets intended for Joe, who has a rather exorbitant one million baht price on his head, courtesy of a drug kingpin named Li. Soon Joe finds himself broke, hanging around Khao San Road, and cadging fags from Israelis ("I found it comforting," he confesses, "to be among my fellow Jews.")
Then his skin turns the color his urine is supposed to be, and his urine turns brown. Bafflingly, he suspects malaria or AIDS. It is only when he has recovered in a Hmong guerilla camp that he is clued into the symptoms of hepatitis, against which one would have thought he had already been vaccinated. Especially given his totally misplaced paranoia about contaminated ice cubes in Thailand (is he thinking of India?) But isn't Thailand, as he believes, in the Third World? Well, it is and it isn't. Many places in Thailand are less Third World than parts of Chicago or Mississippi.
Some of Cohen's descriptions of Thailand suggest that he has actually been there. Up north he sees stall after roadside stall selling, or not selling, the same edible product - in this case, strawberries. This actually happens, and he is naturally entitled to wonder about "all these women selling strawberries to nobody." He calls the border town of Mae Sai a "one-street town" - perfectly apt. He amply captures the terrors of Bangkok traffic, and how one is often literally inches away from being run over. And about Bangkok generally he ain't bad. It was "noisy, busy, dirty. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the way things were laid out. Dilapidated warehouses sat next to spanking new shopping malls. One block was bright and the next block was dark. The sidewalks were crowded with pedestrians and the streets were packed with cars. Everybody drove as if it were the last day of their life". Of course this describes virtually every big city in the developing world, and it is possible that Cohen is actually thinking of Mexico City, of which Bangkok, quite randomly, reminds him.
A "play-sized version of Bangkok" is how Cohen describes Chiang Mai. Or was it that Bangkok is Chiang Mai on steroids? No matter. The descriptions go downhill from here. Staring at some Thai writing, Joe can't decide if it's closer to Hebrew (a phonetic script like Thai) or Chinese (a script of ideographs wholly unlike Thai.) He equates a "Thai-styled toilet" with a "hole in the floor". In fact, a Thai toilet is a ceramic fixture with grooved footrests; it is little more a hole in the floor than a Western toilet is. He writes of "Thai-styled roofs" and "Asian-style shirts" and "that nondescript Asian look" - what could he mean? And what exactly is a "Western-style handshake"? Is it the same as a...handshake? He goes to the the noodle shop on Khao San Road. Oh, I know the one: it's next to the guest house on Khao San Road.
I find it odd that Jungle White is published by a Chiang Mai press and sold in Thailand, where anyone would know better; where the statement that a Thai woman "almost could have been Mexican" sounds not so much wrong as bizarre, like saying that a Nicaraguan "almost" could have been Burmese. Cohen's audience seems to be a certain kind of American who has never been anywhere and never wants to go anywhere, one who fears that he will have "rotted away in some hospital" in some "goddamned country", one who would find the following joke a real hoot: "Thank you for frying Thai Airways....We hope you have enjoyed your fright." One, in short, for whom the phrase "Third World" is equivalent to the word "Boo".
Anyway, Joe discovers that there is a white man wearing chains on his feet at the Jungle White factory in Laos. Whence perhaps a double entendre on Jungle White. This man is a "Pearl" - that is, an American PO of the Vietnam W. It is the existence of such POWs that is preventing the United States from normalizing relations with Laos and Vietnam, and there are a lot of big people in high places who would like to pretend that they are not there. That's why, in a scene reminiscent of the interrogations in 1984, the CIA tells Joe that he did not see what he saw. According to the book's back-cover blurb, the revelation that the American government might lie about things pertaining to the Vietnam War is supposed to be "shocking". Who knows. Maybe it will be shocking to someone who knows absolutely nothing about the American government or the Vietnam War. And it should be said that the war is one of the main reasons heroin is such a problem in the US in the first place. Even Joe, good narc that he is, smokes so much opium that he pukes.
Not to say that there is nothing shocking in Jungle White. I found it shocking that Joe, a DEA man whose ulcers would tend to the conclusion that he is old enough to have lived through the Vietnam War or at least heard about it, would not know who the Hmong are. I was shocked by old-fashioned phrases like "big Oriental face", the suggestion that "dark and adorable" implies "classically Asian", and that something, anything, could be described as "so Third World". Shocking was the news that Joe takes "Tapae" Road out of Chiang Mai, which would imply that he was driving the wrong way down a one-way street. When Smoke tells Joe that a Thai prostitute moonlighting as a drug courier "fuck banana for tourist in Bangkok", I was shocked not by this abuse of fruit but by the fact that Cohen considered this novel-worthy, or indeed novel. Robin's lust for sex shocked me, as did Joe's failure to realize that she's a slut and Cohen's failure to realize that she is implausible. I have never once heard a Western woman use the word "cunt", for example, unless it is to say that they hate that word more than any other. But I was not so much shocked as puzzled when Joe passes through Thai customs on his way to Hong Kong. Don't you pass through Thai customs on your way into Thailand?
If I had to guess, I would attribute the existence of this novel to Cohen's desire as a former real-estate lawyer living in sleepy Minneapolis (home to many Hmong, by the way) to be a messed-up, oversexed agent tumbling mindlessly through what he calls the "Asian darkness". Nor is he alone in this, I am sure. But here's the real shocker: the Golden Triangle, source of so many tales of "intrigue" (as the blurb has it), is not so very far from where I presently write, in Chiang Mai. But I am in a bar/restaurant that could very well be in Minneapolis. Three Thai dudes are playing, of all things, bluegrass, specifically the song whose chorus is: "Will the circle be unbroken? / By and by, Lord, by and by." I am drinking lemonades, and I tell you: the ice cubes are fine.
- The End -
Review of Stephen Paul Cohen's Jungle White, Silkworm Books, 1999.
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