January 12, 2016
A few years ago a psychologist friend asked me if I was a gambler. Back in my first two years of college in a small Midwestern town—an accidental choice, after all, at least for this East Coast kid—overcome with boredom though periodically buzzing with passels of first-rate psychedelics and crystal meth, I’d play weekend-long poker games, listening to stacks of variously-scratched Rolling Stones LPs in someone else’s dorm room, resulting in lost sleep and most of the cash in my pocket. Each deal on site was going to be better than the last. Walk away when you’re down? What’s the point of that, eh? Shut up and deal. We do it over and over again, because luck is like some invisible force in the universe: sometimes it’s on your side, and sometimes it isn’t. If you back out, you’ll never know if the next hand’s going to be a royal straight flush. So you ante up and watch the cards sail towards you.
But that was a long time ago. The cards and chips (and drugs) all belong to a distant time. Except that I’m a writer, so of course I’m a gambler. After all, you spend a year, two years, three years writing a book, or six months writing a script, and back it comes, bang bang bang, one rejection after another, and the thing is dead in the water. So much waste. So much time, and no one’s getting any younger. But it’s what pulls us in every time, the spin of the wheel, the turn of the card, the private voodoo of a lottery flutter: in short, the idea that next time you’ll hit the jackpot. And then you go back and try it again, and again. Because that’s the nature of the game.
There are some who know all too well the allure of taking a chance, who enjoy yielding to fate, and Lawrence Osborne revels in writing about such people. And why not? We all savor our risks. Cross the street, and you arrive safely; cross the street and you’re mown down by a drunk driver. Flip a coin, heads it is. Over his most recent three novels, Osborne’s world is a dependably dangerous and unpredictable one: feeling invincible, his people cross frontiers into regions unknown and all too quickly tip into the quicksand of violence and fear. He’s been compared to Graham Greene, and I think in Hunters in the Dark the comparison is just, but not for the obvious reasons. Yes, Greene wrote about people beyond their home boundaries: in Southeast Asia, in West Africa and Mexico, among others. And Osborne is as good at evoking place as Greene was. But while Greene’s characters are suspended in the corridor between the Catholic polarities of eternal damnation and paradise, sensing free will but feeling the twitch of the thread in the hands of the grand puppeteer, Lawrence Osborne’s are in thrall to the cosmic forces of the country in which they find themselves, forces not as clearly defined as those in Greene’s religion, doubter though he may have been. Driving through Morocco on their way to a posh party, the central figures in his second novel, The Forgiven, run down a young Moroccan man. And, just like that, everything changes, and most definitely not for the better. Want to be a stranger in a strange land? Want to be a gambler, then? Faites vos jeux, mesdames et messieurs. Just wait until the little ivory ball falls. It could change your life forever.
Osborne also shares with Greene the ability to evoke the landscape, both physical and spiritual, of place; both men lived (and live) internationally, and know of what they speak. In Osborne’s latest novel, Hunters in the Dark, a provincial English teacher travels to Bangkok and afterwards to Phnom Penh. And, as in his previous novel, The Ballad of a Small Player, in Hunters in the Dark we are once again in the presence of a gambler, though this time a gambler-by-accident, a twenty-eight-year-old British schoolteacher losing himself in the mean streets and decrepit casinos of Cambodia. Not the old hand at baccarat that self-styled Lord Doyle in Small Player seems to be, Robert Grieve is a man of simple tastes, well-trod paths, a life of, if not quiet desperation, at least quiet monotony, which seems to please him: there is comfort to be had in knowing exactly how each day will play out. And yet it somehow has also driven him to this part of the world. After all a holiday is a holiday, right? He has taken a step out of his comfort zone, travelling to Pailin province in western Cambodia near the border with Thailand (Osborne currently lives in Bangkok, though he has lived in Cambodia), where he smokes Alain Delon cigarettes (as though here in America one could happily puff on a filter-tipped Brando) and, down to his last hundred dollars, plays roulette. And walks away with two grand, serious dough in that region. “Here you are, boy,” he thinks, “a rabbit shooting out of a hat, all set up with no future at all but with a stroke of luck that has served you right.” And that changes everything, for better or for worse.
Those who’ve read the previous two of Lawrence Osborne’s novels sense that this winning streak—this event, this moment of chance—like the fatal accident in Morocco in The Forgiven, will lead this man into something much, much darker. His fate, we think, is settled. And then he takes a taxi to Battambang, and his driver’s name is Mr. Deth.
Cambodia: a land of ghosts, the air thickened with portents. Make no mistake: this is a haunted book, not just by the dead, but by the living, the so-called 17 April People, who were there, unindoctrinated, when the Khmer Rouge took over under the leadership of Pol Pot in 1975, and Cambodia became Democratic Kampuchea. And then the killings began. The air in this country, in this novel, is still toxic with blood and old resentments
What drives Grieve? Perhaps it’s his sense that beyond his own dull and admittedly impoverished life, “he realized that he was waiting for something different. Beyond his own life there was, without question, a parallel one that he might one day acquire. It was a fantasy that could not be defended.” But a fantasy, nonetheless, that some people with a modicum of nerve are pleased to nurture. And when he realizes that he’s become a victim of circumstance, it’s perversely even more satisfying than sweeping up his two grand at the roulette table.
Impulse: that’s the key to this character. For a man whose life seems to run within the narrow lanes of routine back in England, here in Southeast Asia, it seems, fate takes over. No sooner does he hire a driver to take him to a temple than he decides not to return to Bangkok. With his newly-won money lining his pockets he realizes that he could stay on here in Cambodia. A week, maybe two, possibly more. As though trapped in a Patricia Highsmith novel, just before leaving the temple with his driver he meets a stranger he had spotted earlier, an American, Simon Beaucamp, who is described by a policeman as “a man spinning in his happiness in expensive clothes.” After a lost night at Robert’s house, Simon finds himself in the American’s clothes, bespoke though casual, without a passport or his luggage, cast adrift in this land of Pol Pot and memories of the killing fields. Reduced to nothing, stripped of his possessions, he’s suddenly, and spectacularly, liberated. He can do what he likes. He can buy a forged passport in someone else’s identity. He can become the UnRobert. He can even become Simon Beauchamp.
Many authors rely on exotic settings simply by way of bravura, or to rekindle a memory of a holiday once spent in, say, Tahiti or Irkutsk or Varanasi. Setting becomes, then, a kind of backdrop for a drama that could have taken place anywhere—in Jersey City or Cherry Hinton in Cambridgeshire or even, dare I say, French Lick, Indiana. Lawrence Osborne, though, knows his cities and his countrysides; more importantly he understands the invisible strands and webs that make a country what it is and sometimes what it’s always been, its demons and gods, omens and reprisals. Cambodia, for him, is more than the traveller’s sketchy recollection of someplace not quite like home; its history, its religion, its superstitions, create the loom on which Hunters in the Dark is woven. Karma may be a bitch, ready to bite you in the ass. But then sometimes it kicks in just when you need it.
To give away any more of the plot, of the many twists of fate that befall these characters in a land governed by Dhamma—the cosmic laws of Buddhism—would be to spoil the reading experience. Hunters in the Dark is much more than a thriller; there are cosmic and supernatural aspects to it that lift it into a whole other category. Lawrence Osborne has the rare talent of being able to write a novel with both a gripping narrative and a literary intelligence, a rare combination indeed.