January 31, 2008

The Horny Toad in the Bar

Filed under: asia,culture,east-west,Thailand — Kim @ 3:25 pm

The following is about a book I read a while ago. Not sure why but it “set me off on one” and prompted an old-style book review-ish type of musing.

Dean Barrett is an “Old Asia Hand” and a serious writer of accomplished prose and thoroughly researched historical fiction. His Hangman’s Point, for example, has been much lauded for the way it brings old Hong Kong to life and has been optioned for film 4 times. He has also had plays on Broadway, and has written several well-praised thrillers set in Thailand such as The Kingdom of Make Believe and Sky Train to Murder. He also likes to occasionally indulge in the knockabout prose of the “hard-boiled” detective genre and anecdotal accounts of his time in Thailand, and so we have his latest book Murder at the Horny Toad bar & other OUTRAGEOUS tales of Thailand.

Outside the office, he is that old guy who you can see hanging around the bars in South-East Asia with a beer in one hand, a bargirl in the other, and a big shit-eating grin on his face. He’s the kind who has an attitude about his lifestyle and will hold forth at length about his right to do what he wants, live how he likes, and his inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. And he is a hard sonufabitch to gainsay because he sure isn’t stupid and he has a voice that rings with conviction. But does he have a point? Well, assuming you’ve never hung around to listen much to that kind of guy, why not spend some time with Murder at the Horny Toad and see what you think?

Murder is a collection of fiction and non-fiction. It contains 3 “Harry Broditsky” detective stories, 4 Thai-themed short stories, 3 longish accounts of travels around Thailand and 28 vignettes that make up a separate section entitled Memoirs of an oversexed Farang. The title story is a detective story starring “Harry Boroditsky”. Boroditsky (“Sure, I know, the name sucks…friends just call me Boro. Enemies call me Ditsky. But not for long. If you get my drift”) is a classic of his type. A stereotype, that is, of the hard-boiled detective. Harry is a bit of a ladies man who will shoot men dead without hesitation or regret and who has a nose for a case and sex on the brain. “Condom-grey clouds scudded across a Viagra-blue sky”, being one of the most memorable images.

And when there is a murder at the Horny Toad go-go bar, the mama san knows just who she’s gonna call. But as to why Harry is given the title of the book, I must say I find it a mystery. Why draw attention to this story? I found the characterization to be flimsy, the humour strained, the imagery and atmosphere unappealing, the plot unconvincing, and the punchline lame beyond belief. I did not like this short story! But my expectations were high because I’ve read some of his other novels and because before reading the title piece I had (as I suspect many readers will) gone straight to Memoirs of an Oversexed Farang and had been treated to some laughs, sly wit, and classy prose.

The confessions/memoirs section is by and large a well-executed blend of self-exposure, self-mockery, and fond erotic memories. Actually, the collection kicks off with the 4 accomplished and interesting Thai-themed short stories, and in the first of these, The Death of Ron Adams, we can immediately detect the obsessions of Mr. Barrett’s book. Sentence 3 mentions a go-go bar and sentence 8 talks of how irresistible Thai women are. The other obsession comes on the third page when we are told that the go-go bar the eponymous Ron Adams decides to buy is called “The Feminist Nightmare”. A charitable critic might call this a sly dig, whereas a feminist would probably call it a cheap shot. In any case these are the two obsessions that run through the book, the Thai hooker and the Western female/feminist. Mr. Barrett’s binary for the significant other. He is obsessed with women.

This is the kind of thing that drives the Thai Tourist board and the good burghers of Bangkok up the wall because of its reinforcing of the negative image of Thai females. It’s also a convenient dichotomy I suppose, a muse you can love and a muse you can love to hate, but in any case, if not done deftly then this well-worn topic can quickly go back over ground well-trodden by the tedious, repetitive chunterings of the chauvinist bar-room bore. I found there is a definite difference in the quality of writing involving the not-so-witty point scoring against western women, who seem to very much get his goat, and the passionate portrayal of eastern women he obviously cares very much for, and/or is erotically bewitched by. Why could he not write about the latter without bringing up the former? An old flame? A guilt trip? A misjudgment of taste? As the Thais often say, “Up to Yoooo!”.

In any case, for this reader it is an important point in his favour that Barrett’s work evinces so much affectionate eroticism. The image of the Thai woman is often not such a positive one in texts by western men and this kind of writing stands out from the slew of bragging, condescending, body-obsessed, and affectionless pornography that all-too-often gets put on the internet.

Barrett is maybe at his most eloquent when waxing lyrical on the beauty of Thai women, particularly their skin and hair. This is not surprising perhaps as he is after all the proud author of two photobooks on Thai women, The Girls of Thailand, and Thailand: Land of Beautiful Women. If you ever forget or doubt what he is talking about you can simply take a glance at the front cover of Murder at the Horny Toad, which is graced by the kind of smoldering exotic Thai beauty to make an abbot kick a hole in a Watt window. Or if you live in Thailand you could just leave your house and head in any direction.

Yes, you can judge this book by its cover because this book is all about Eve. There is hardly a mention of Thai men (some taxi drivers and a DJ) and there’s not much Thai culture either. Both the fiction and the non-fiction sections contain very few of the sights, sounds, smells, or tastes of Thailand, other than those referring to the female form of course! Barrett can evoke Thailand and has shown how well he can in, for example, The Kingdom of Make Believe, but, in any case, the focus on the female is probably representative of his own preoccupations in Thailand. He is not alone in this…Thai women are the reason why thousands of foreign men come to Thailand. The beauty and attraction of Thai women (all women, all humans) is not easy to capture without sounding banal, but Barrett does a pretty good job.

He can be rhapsodic in his descriptions of Thai feminine features and can explicate and play up his helpless fascination with Thai girls tellingly and amusingly. Not only is he a helpless “ladies man,” but some of his most endearing and witty prose comes when he is sending up the “man’s man”, such as in the following where he writes of his bafflement as to why it should be that in Bangkok sports bars

despite the presence of gorgeous (and available) women, all of the men around me were watching and sometimes cheering hideously overpaid, half-men, half-boy jocks running madly about destroying a good lawn…and of course, once a ball was actually kicked into a net, the men watching the game acted as if they’d had their first orgasm in five years.

Now, that (and available) in brackets is worth a second look, because “available” is a word that is stressed throughout the book. He is at least honest and true to the mark in his analysis of why a certain type of western man, of which he is a representative, is so obsessed with Thai women. There is, of course, the outstanding beauty of Thai women…but it is the availability of these beautiful women that really gets them going. And here is the rub. Barrett’s appreciation of the beauty of the female form is affectionately and caringly crafted, and there is surely nothing wrong with that, but some readers may find a problem with his ready and even gleeful admittance that he sleeps with prostitutes. A lot. Almost exclusively it would seem.

For some people this kind of behaviour is to be condemned out of hand, and Barrett of course realises this. There may be a certain frisson of “épater les bourgeois” to his unabashed tone (I mean what would mummy think of it all?) and in some ways I want to congratulate him for his honesty and for his comedy on this touchy topic. Importantly, he sends himself up nicely and is capable of cutely exploiting the absurdities and double-edged exploitation of the economic transactions of paying for sex. An unusual and striking example is when he is called in to act in a film which is depicting the bar scene in Bangkok, and he hits on one of the actresses.

She gave me a friendly, don’t-be-silly, smile, an affectionate pat on the arm, and said in English: “Grandfather!” Oh. Ok, I see how the game is played. These actresses pretending to be bargirls are Bangkok girls from financially stable families as opposed to real bargirls from northeast Thailand from impoverished families. In other words, actresses posing as bargirls wouldn’t have quite the same alacrity to jump into bed with me. OK. I didn’t just fall of the durian cart yesterday. But I could handle the situation: Bangkok girls would simply be more of a challenge, that’s all.

But, revealingly, he didn’t get his girl, or at least I’m pretty sure he didn’t or he would have bragged of it! Now, Mr. Barrett can speak Thai and is a clever attractive guy, I’m sure….but outside of the bar scene he loses some of his lustre it would appear. Back inside the bar scene, however, all is well and good and Mr Barrett can indulge himself to his cock’s content. It does not make it any “better” but he is neither proud nor ashamed to be a whoremonger. He is simply delighted that there are so many beautiful women available to him…for a fee. This may or may not be a problem for his intended audience, but it is of course a problem for the other obsession of his book, the western feminist…and he is less than affectionate with women who do not see things his way and who attack him for his whoring. His “playful” term for them is the flippant and offensively stupid coinage “feminazi”.

Could this be a generational thing? Is it an American thing? Is it easier for us these days now that “western women” are more comfortable with “Men Behaving Badly” and are themselves better off and more powerful? I do not know.

In one of his pieces from the Memoirs there is a wish fulfillment fantasy in which Barrett is in a go-go bar surrounded by gorgeous Thai women and has a feminazi grovel for apology in front of him and admit that she only attacks him because she is jealous. Erm, like, what’s that all about? Hold on though because it gets all subtled up when his dream turns into a nightmare and he realizes that… I had been set up! This whole dream had been a feminazi trap of some kind. Somehow they had managed to penetrate my subconscious! And after being thrown out of the bar he ends up complaining that “I had just been thrown out of a bar in my own damn dream; a dream which showed me that feminazis were attacking me even in my sleep.

The lady-killer doth protest too much, methinks. He obviously feels stung or at least bothered by what they say. Is he scared of them? Is it because they are his superego? Because they make him realize that he is not having any kind of intelligent conversation with women? Why does he expend so much ink on them? Why are they his muse? Ok, enough of the ham-fisted psychoanalysis…yes, he is worried that they have a point. They disturb his dreams and he is honest enough to admit this, but not honest enough to dig down as to why they worry him so much. Would he mind, I wonder, if I had a stab at this for him?

No money, no honey. That hoary whorey cliché. Mr Barrett has money, so he can have sex with wonderful looking women. If Mr Barrett has no money, he cannot have sex with these wonderful women. If Mr Barrett were really to be “thrown out of the bar” he would have to start treating women seriously in order to get sex from them. He does not want to do this and is perhaps even embarrassed by his sexual urges. He is afraid that if he had to face women as equals then they would throw the horny toad out of the bar and leave him to slobber in his own juices in the gutter outside. They would mock his animal urges and leave him a lesser man. But he has money, so he can pay to avoid this fate. His dreams will tell him this, in “Freudian code”, but his waking mind does not want to decode the message into such straightforward unflattering terms.

Or so it could be put. I leave it to you to decide how unfair an interpretation this is. It is certainly an unflattering and over-dramatized one. However, as an intelligent man, Mr. Barrett of course knows full well that the kind of Thai woman he so adores would not be with him were it not for his money, and he demonstrates this amusingly in one of his vignettes called A Test of True Love. But as an intelligent man he must also know that his dichotomizing of women as either educated and aggressive and western, and therefore unsexy, or as eastern and uneducated and as erotic as hell, is a false and crude distinction. For Mr Barrett is an intelligent man.

Just to illustrate the kind of mismatch between him and his hookers, what about this dialogue from one of his vignettes in which Mr DB is having an inter-coital chat with one of his Thai take aways…

“What you do?”
“A ballad. I’m writing a ballad.”
I knew she didn’t know what that was but I also knew it would buy me a bit of time to write.
“What ballad mean?”
“A kind of poem.” I knew she didn’t know what that was either but I thought she might go back to watching the ghost story soap opera in the other room.

And soon, predictably perhaps, he stops writing and they start fucking. Well, I presume that he would prefer a soul-mate to a shag-bag, or at least a shag-bag he could talk to perhaps? But the kind of educated woman who could hold their own with Barrett and with whom he could really talk about his interests in literature, history, politics, philosophy etc, would most likely not be too taken with his bragging about whoring. And so he would have to reject a whole side of himself, which is not the kind of thing a man like him is likely to do in a hurry.

And although he says that he is happy with his Thai women, whether they love him or not and whether he can talk to them or not, he remains angry and dissatisfied about something, and he seems to be taking it out on western women.

Hold on a moment though before we finish off. Let’s not get too somber and po-faced here. Cold beer, flirty small talk, and great sex is enough sometimes, of course. And it is great fun. And many many men come to Bangkok for a sexual holiday, right? Old Dean is just having a bit of fun, right? He doesn’t want us to take him too seriously, right? Wrong. Mr. Barrett wants his world-view to be taken seriously. He thinks it is an excusable way to live, certainly an exciting and rewarding way to live, and he dedicates the book

to all farangs (foreigners) who washed up on Thailand’s shores and at some point came to realize that they are far beyond hope of redemption. And especially to those who have yet to realize it.

Having read the book, this dedication seems to me to be really more like an invitation to a male audience to join him in the cosy camaraderie of a whoremonger’s club, and I would like to refuse the invitation. I am glad I bought this book, it made me laugh, and smile, and it made me think. I would gladly read more of Barrett’s work, but to accept his invitation to lose “hope of redemption” seems to me to be a glib refusal of emotional maturity. There are some men who have washed up on Thailand’s shores who think that the relationships brought about solely by the financial disparity between east and west are usually unsatisfying delusions. The economically impoverished women of Thailand would by and large be better off spared the horny toads’ immaturities, inadequacies, and sexual cravings. I am not sure I would go so far as to deprive Mr Barrett of money by not buying his books, but it would probably be a good thing if the horny toads were to be thrown out of the bar a bit more often. It might be good for them too: some of them might sober up and turn into handsome princes.

5 Comments

  1. Damn good read! See you in Alice Bar?

    Comment by Alex — February 4, 2008 @ 12:19 pm

  2. Alice? Alice? Who the fuck is Alice?

    Comment by Kim — February 7, 2008 @ 4:25 pm

  3. you feminazi!

    Comment by Craig — February 8, 2008 @ 6:10 pm

  4. Now you’ve done it! You’re suggesting that beautiful, curvaceous, succulent Thai women, the very ones I have been buying drinks for for 41 years, don’t really love me for my scintillating personality but rather for my access to the local ATM machine. For shame. A horrendous insult. You’d better start looking over your shoulder because Harry Boroditsky is on the case. Dzai jian! Dean Barrett AKA Kwan Kung

    Comment by Dean Barrett — February 22, 2008 @ 6:25 am

  5. Wow! Brought the man himself to the comments. High praise indeed.

    Excellent review Kim. Based only off the text here, I’m guessing DB’s polarization between Eastern exotics and Western “feminists” is likely a product of circumstance rather than a blanket universal statement about women.

    Some of the harshest judgment I’ve received for being with an Asian woman comes from Western women. Not, as DB puts it, as jealousy, but mostly just due to ignorance.

    In DB’s case, perhaps it is slightly more called for, but judgment all the same. Whereas with Thais, and especially with a bit of cash exchanged, there’s no judgment.

    Will have to keep an eye out for Barrett’s book(s). I’ve been to Thailand a number of times, and though tempted, I’ve never followed the entrepreneurial tuk-tuk drivers down the proverbial rabbit hole… would be cool to read what would have happened had I done so.

    Comment by Ryan — March 3, 2008 @ 1:26 am

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