LIGHTNING ON THE SUN
By Robert Bingham
Surely the unhappiest way for any writer to attract notice is to die young. A case in point is Robert Bingham, whose death from a drug overdose in 1999 cut short a promising career but ensured generous media attention for his posthumously published first novel, Lightning on the Sun. Indeed, after reading some of the praise that has been directed at Bingham – including comparisons to Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene – one might feel embarrassed not having heard more about him before his death.
Reading the book, however, leads to a different conclusion.
For one thing, if Bingham’s life was anything like what he described in his fiction, then his premature death could scarcely have come as a surprise. Lightning on the Sun is concerned with the misadventures of three characters, all of whom spend most of their time either stoned or drunk. Substance abuse isn’t an addiction or an escape for these people so much as it is a way of life. Even though they are all in their thirties it is difficult to imagine them as adults, much less making it to middle age.
Our hero is Asher, an American living in Phnom Penh. Though he originally went to Cambodia with the noble goal of helping to restore ancient monuments, he is now desperate to get back home. Realizing that he can’t do this without a load of cash (“America meant money. America equaled money.”), he decides to smuggle some opium to his girlfriend, Julie G-Spot, in New York through an unwitting journalist named Reese.
At least that’s the plan. But, as always in such sordid tales, there are complications. Gangsters in both locations become involved and pretty soon everyone is running for his life.
What happens is certainly improbable, but that is the least of the book’s problems. Bingham’s characters are all of the Bret Easton Ellis variety: Young, well-educated, relatively privileged, drugged-up, oversexed, and terminally bored. Asher is described by his girlfriend as being “decadent nihilism personified.” Reese is a burned-out preppie. Julie is a downwardly mobile delinquent. They are all idiots. How any of them ended up in their present rut is never explained. It’s possible Bingham wants us to see them as victims, though of what I have no idea.
Lightning on the Sun is also very much in the modern tradition of the novel that wants to be a movie, which means that it tries very hard to be a second-rate, physically-oriented drama without a lot of introspection. The best a reader can hope for is an entertaining style, which is often the saving grace for the present generation of hip young novelists. But unlike the best of his peers, Bingham’s writing is not exceptional and does nothing to help the story along. In fact, its very hipness is part of the problem. The sentence “Their love had risen, then fallen like a dead cat thrown from an apartment building” doesn’t make any sense at all to me.
Finally there is the ghost of Graham Greene, invoked by an epigraph which implores us not to abandon all faith. But if the book has any connection to Graham Greene it is to the bad Greene, the religious bigot. Running through the work of 20th century authors from T. S. Eliot to Walker Percy is the idea that a sinner is at least someone who knows and appreciates what it means to sin. The point is that no matter how much of an amoral jerk you are, you’re still better than the rest of the human herd if you have what might be labeled a spiritual dimension.
Whatever validity this attitude had 50 years ago, I think it’s fair to say that in Lightning on the Sun the spiritual dimension has finally expired. Asher, Julie and Reese are only cynical, soulless creations, without either the roguish charm or sense of suffering shared by most anti-heroes.
This may say something about young people and the absence of faith in the world today, but it’s hard to believe we needed this book to say it.
Review first published July 8, 2000.