Tragic Author Whose Life in Cambodia Provides Inspiration; Lightning on the Sun. by Robert Bingham (Canongate, Pounds 9.99). Reviewed by Anna Sansom

The Birmingham Post (England), August 11, 2001 | Go to article overview

Tragic Author Whose Life in Cambodia Provides Inspiration; Lightning on the Sun. by Robert Bingham (Canongate, Pounds 9.99). Reviewed by Anna Sansom


Byline: Anna Sansom

One of the richest young men in America, Robert Bingham died of a heroin overdose at 33 on November 28, 1999, less than six months after his marriage and five months before his first book was published.

His family was nicknamed the Kennedys of Kentucky due to the fortune it had amassed through its media empire and the tragic, freakish deaths of its male members.

Only three months old when his father was killed in a family car accident, Bingham's severance of family ties was marked by his decision to stop rowing, a strong passion of his uncle's. Responsibility-free, Bingham started drinking and partying heavily and fostered the eerily, almost death-wishing cynicism that would see him drift and rollercoast through life.

After university, he moved to New York co-founding the arts/literary magazine Open City and his loft apartment parties drew the hippest of the New York crowd. But the excitement-craving Bingham had a low boredom threshold and he hit Cambodia in 1992, six years before Pol Pot's death.

In the reckless capital Phnom Penh, corruption was rife, morals non-existent and living dirt cheap and easy. Heroin, smuggled down from the Golden Triangle and into Cambodia from Thailand, was widely available, virtually uncut and selling for roughly $50 a gram.

It is this intriguing south-east Asian city and Bingham's experiences there (getting smacked out, freelancing for the New Yorker and Cambodia Daily and hanging out with the wire agency journalists) that provided the inspiration and backdrop for Lightning on the Sun.

Fast-paced, witty, daring and sarcastic, the novel is about an American called Asher who arrived in Cambodia to do restoration work for UNESCO. Now just dossing around, Asher does little more than play tennis, frequent the massage parlours of Vietnamese prostitutes and drink at the Heart and the Foreign Correspondents Club with the journos he secretly abhors. That and smoking pipes of opium and snorting lines of heroin.

Desperate to exit the country before his addiction tightens its hold, he hatches a plan with his feisty, Harvard-educated ex-girlfriend Julie who is bartending in a New York strip joint. …

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