A former Metro contributor’s first novel is a darkly comic glimpse into alienated youth and sex tourism.
280 pp, trade paper
Published by nightwares Books
Reviewed by Daniel Gawthrop, The Nation
Given the mountain of expat novels that paint Thailand as exotic sex paradise, you’d think Bangkok’s throbbing gay subculture would figure in at least some of them.
But other than Peter Jackson’s The Intrinsic Quality of Skin (Floating Lotus, 1994), an oddly baroque tale of a gay Australian who thinks he’s a Thai man trapped in a white man’s body, there’s been nothing until this small press offering from Robin Newbold.
Full disclosure: Newbold is a personal friend, and I’m singled out for “honourable mention” in the credits (for moral support and shared bar tabs at Balcony). That said, bias shouldn’t be a problem here. Based on the brief synopsis I read before Vacuum Packed was published, without having seen the manuscript, I found little reason to be optimistic.
This was not because Newbold, a 33-year-old British freelance journalist and former contributing editor at Metro, had never published fiction. It was more a question of whether readers could sustain interest in the book’s two 20-something protagonists: Jamie, a vacuous disco bunny with the attention span of a squirrel, and Craig, the lover he dumps after discovering he’s HIV-positive. What could one learn from the self-absorbed musings of such post-literate, designer drug-popping slackers?
A fair bit, it turns out. Newbold, who has obviously read his P.P. Hartnett and Bret Easton Ellis, describes the emptiness of pop culture and the wreckage of lost young lives with a world-weary cynicism that can sting with its bite:
According to Attitude if someone held your stare for over twelve seconds it meant they wanted you and Jamie calculated the guy had held his gaze for at least fifteen seconds last visit. He normally relied on such pop psychology as gospel and certainly hoped it was true as he was desperate for some ‘boy on boy action’, as it was so charmingly termed in the pink press.
In alternating chapters, we get the story of Craig, who travels to Thailand to rediscover the meaning of life post-diagnosis, and Jamie, who stays in London to seek fame and fortune as a pop star while avoiding his homophobic father and abused mother.
When the book begins, the young men are social equals. But as their stories progress, Jamie and Craig assume opposite roles in the same exploitation dynamic: Craig, as white tourist patron of handsome young Thai boys, and Jamie, as submissive boytoy of the creepy older English men, including a porn producer, who use him. One world, indeed.
The Thai chapters follow Craig’s wanderings through the Silom, Babylon sauna, Pattaya’s Jomtien, et cetera. The sex scenes are well drawn, reflecting the disappointment of hurried, emotionless commercial transaction. While everyone’s guilty of bad behaviour, the Western characters are singled out for well-deserved skewering. Like the American who keeps a harem of teenaged Thai freelancers at his hotel:
Craig was confronted with several badly dressed, skinny boys shivering in the icy air-conditioned room. They looked so timid and out of place with the bold and extravagant furnishings and fittings. The huddle nervously slurped beer and tried to blend into the background, their chatter obliterated by MTV…
Vacuum Packed is not without flaws. Jamie and Craig’s relationship is treated as a mere detail; a little more plot reference to their time together might have added layers of depth. A misspelling or two (“hoards” instead of “hordes” for crowds) escaped the editor’s notice, and Newbold’s fondness for adverbs occasionally grates.
But these are minor quibbles in a first novel that reveals a surprisingly confident voice and an instinct for good storytelling—a fact that bodes well for a second novel.
Daniel Gawthrop, a former Nation subeditor and reviewer, writes from Vancouver.