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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

You’ve Got to Write What You Know

On a Sunday morning December of 1999, Robert Worth Bingham IV, 33-year-old author of an acclaimed short-story collection, respected Cambodian foreign correspondent, and heir to the multi-million dollar Bingham fortune, was found dead in his New York apartment, of an apparent drug overdose. This isn’t the plot of the novel I’m reviewing, but the story of its author.

Lightning On the Sun is Robert Bingham’s debut novel, published posthumously in 2000. I picked it up because it has also received its fair share of acclaim, and you can’t beat a book with a story.

The acclaim is deserved. It’s a fast-paced, bleak, international thriller that deftly jumps from Phnom Penh to New York and back again (It even has a side trip to rural Mass) following an ill-fated drug deal and its’ mastermind as he slowly digs his own grave.

Asher, finding himself out of his cushy UN job in Cambodia, is busy brokering a deal on $3000 worth of heroin that will be worth 100K stateside. His New York contact is an ex-girlfriend he left the US to forget and the local contact is a Ministry worker with a price. All he wants is a refurbished bank account and a plane ticket home. He finds a dupe in the journalist community, and tries to keep his legs unbroken and his brains in his head, until his money arrives and he can pay his various creditors. The balance between hope and fear is what drives this novel, as the girl, the dupe, and the hero weave through the global underworld.

The Phnom Penh world is incredible in its intricacies of politics, power, and violence. The handful of huddled Westerners view the conflicts and firefights outside the Foreign Correspondents Bar as we view the weather: flashes of lightning and thunder in a distant sky. The overarching power structures take on the feeling of gods in old epics, giving boons and befalling tragedies with a hand invisible to the participants. But there is no deus ex machina, as the book closes about as happy as Hamlet.

It’s unfortunate that such a talented, bleak and fatalistic writer had to come to such a bleak and fatalistic end. He would have been a name I would have looked for in the future.