The new Jim Algie collection of tales comprises an expat’s notes from Thailand’s underground, writes Lary Wallace in The Magazine of the Bangkok Post
Phuket snake-handler with a paralysed thumb puts on shows featuring monstrous, man-eating snakes. An Australian photojournalist is assaulted on the street for his invasiveness and left unconscious, film stock wrapped “around his face and legs so he looked like a film-strip mummy, branded with a photo gallery of his own images.” The stomach of a drunken expat “turn[s] into a live volcano, spewing up all the toxic excesses from a few misspent years on Khao San Road: of bad drugs and sour beers and sordid sex and ugly camaraderie with these ignorant hooligans.”
This is the world of Jim Algie’s fiction, a pungent, repulsive world, sordid Siam subterranea. But the sordidness is touched by a genuine affection and respect for Thailand – its people and its culture – without which this material would merely sit on the page in a heap of meretricious mendacity.
The grotesquerie, yes, is very grotesque, but it’s employed in the service of communicating subtle and vital truths. All the stories are like that in The Phantom Lover: And Other Thrilling Tales of Thailand, Algie’s latest collection of short fiction, and a book whose truths, Algie himself has claimed, could not even safely be told in non-fiction form, the fictional form allowing him to stretch out his stories, making his tall tales taller and letting them breathe a more rarefied oxygen.
One of his stories (“The Legendary Nobody”) is about a real-life cannibalistic murderer from mid-twentieth-century Thailand, and another (“Life and Death Sentences”) is about a real-life prison executioner, now dead, whom Algie had both interviewed and befriended. The collection’s closing piece is a novella entitled “Tsunami.” At 42,000 words, it’s by far the lengthiest piece in the collection. It occurs on Khao Lak during the Asian tsunami of 2004, and required, according to Algie on his website, “some nine years of reportage, both after the tsunami and during many subsequent trips to follow up on the survivors’ trauma and the authorities’ reconstruction efforts.” “Tsunami” exists not just as a tacked-on kind of closing-out to the collection, but as a tragic culmination, a great gobbling Gotterdammerung that brings several of the collection’s characters into its frame, uniting them in a common setting conveying common experience. It’s a horrifying story. A woman reaching out to save her children has her right arm cut off by a boat propeller, and from the perspective of Wade, the photographer, there on the boat, “it looked like the sun had spurted a geyser of blood.” For Wade’s own part: “For the rest of his life, whenever he got in the shower,orthesea,theliquidcaress of water set off depth charges under his skin: tiny explosions of pain, each connected to a memory of that fatal odyssey.”
A prostitute named Watermelon, in “Wet Nightmares,” devises a plot to poison one of her more sadistic customers. When she contemplates the possibility of jail, she entertains the notion that perhaps even her current profession “had to be heaven compared to being imprisoned in a Thai jail, where the cells were so overcrowded that the prisoners had to take turns sleeping on the floor, and the daily food rations consisted of a small bowl of watery rice, and maybe — if you were lucky — a fish head.”
Algie is the author of Bizarre Thailand: Tales of Crime, Sex, and Black Magic, that gloriously warped and weird compendium of the strange, and there is not a single page of this latest book of his that does not announce Algie’s penchant for the perverse. He even touches (in “Obituary for the Khaosan Road Outlaws and Impostors”) on a topic made tragically relevant by recent news, the fake-passport trade.
But even that story isn’t just about fake passports, or even human trafficking; it’s about the nature of friendship, honour among thieves, and the identity psychology of the expat: “The old you is still waiting in the wings, thinking old thoughts, dreaming old dreams, and ready to reprise roles you thought you’d long outgrown and cast off.”
This sentence, like seemingly all the sentences in The Phantom Lover, could have been written only from an authentic place, a place earned and occupied after many years of living and reporting in the region.
As for Watermelon, our vengeful hooker-with-a-heart-of-steel: she does poison the sadistic john. I don’t mind giving that much away, because that’s not the end of the story. It never is.