Timothy Hallinan, Breathing Water: A Poke Rafferty Thriller (2009) (8/8/17)
The interweaving plots of the book and complex array of characters got a little confusing at times, but overshadowing the "thriller" narrative are the continuing stories of the American travel writer Poke and his Isaan-Thai wife, Rose, and their adopted daughter —a former street child herself—Miaow; Poke's best friend, the police officer Arthit; and Boo, who watches out for his fellow street urchins. We meet the young woman Da, also from the agricultural northeast of the country, who takes to begging with the help—which includes a baby, since women with babies get more money—of a wealthy businessman. And there's Pan, likewise from Isaan, though he has become one of the richest men in Thailand. As well as various henchmen and men of influence who emerge periodically from the shadows.
The story gets going with Poke and Arthit at a poker game that includes a drunken Pan. There, Poke plays a final winning hand and earns the right to pen Pan's life story—a bet that, when Poke suggests it, he is sure Pan, notoriously resistant to any sort of biography, will refuse. Pan doesn't. When Pan asks why Poke wants to write such a book, Poke replies: "Something Balzac said. I just want to know whether it's true
. . . that behind every great fortune lies a great crime."
Little does he suspect. Uncovering Pan's story turns out to be much more fraught than Poke ever imagined. And so the fun—and tension—begins.
Hallinan is a very good writer, with some great turn of phrase, description, or observation on virtually every page. In the following passage, for example, Poke has just been threatened by glimpses of the floor plan to his apartment, his bank account and cell phone numbers written on a pad, in the hands of a man he does not trust: "displays of naked power . . . the kind of power most farang [foreigners] never experience."
Rafferty knows Thailand well enough to be aware that people above a certain social and political level are virtually unaccount-able, shielded from the consequences of their actions by layers of subordinates and networks of reciprocal favors and graft that corrupt both the police and the courts. These are the people, the "big people," whom Rose despises, the people who attend dress balls with blood on their hands. There are not many of them, relatively speaking, but they have immense mass and they exert a kind of gravity that bends tens of thousands of lives into the orbit of their will.There's also quite a bit of humor. Here's a conversation at a fund-raiser hosted by Pan:
Most farang pass through the gravitational Gordian knot of Bangkok unscathed, like long-haul comets for whom our solar system is just something else to shoulder their way past. Farang have no formal status here. They come and go. They dimple the surface of the city's space-time like water-striding insects, staying a few months at a stretch and then flitting elsewhere. They don't have enough mass to draw the gaze of the individuals around whom the orbits wheel.
But Rafferty is being gazed at. And he knows all the way to the pit of his stomach that it's the worst thing that can happen to him. If they decide it is in their best interest, they can blow through him and his cobbled-together family like a cannonball through a handkerchief.
If he goes in one direction, Rose and Miaow are in danger. If he goes in the other direction, Rose and Miaow are in danger. And "in danger" is a euphemism.
"Since someone has to have some manners," Rafferty says, "this is my wife, Rose. Rose, this is—"He then proceeds to adorn her with a priceless yellow-diamond necklace and parade her among the assembled guests. The Isaan princess. Or, rather, lotus.
"I know who he is," Rose says. "It's an honor to meet you."
Pan says, "And you're the . . ." He pauses, screws up his eyes, and says in English, ". . . whipped cream on the evening. You're so beautiful it's almost wasteful." He glowers at [his media manager] Dr. Ravi. "Why didn't you think of this?"
"I hadn't seen her."
"No, of course not." Pan looks at Rose again and actually rubs his hands together. "I've made a life out of excess," he says. "Improving the lily—"
Dr. Ravi says, "Gilding the lily."
"Actually," Rafferty says, "it's 'painting.' Painting the—"
"Oh, fuck the lily," says Pan. He leans in toward Rose as though to whisper in her ear. "I have an idea for you, something that will ruin the evening for most of my guests. We know they think of Isaan as mud. Let's remind them that mud is where the lotus grows."
All in all, this was a very satisfying romp through the streets and sois of Bangkok, and a little deeper into the hearts and minds of Poke and his family and friends. I am already looking forward to the fourth installment.