Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s Sighsteeing

If you read the literary news even casually, you’ve no doubt heard the oft-repeated details surrounding the publication of Sightseeing, Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s debut collection: Thai-American writer, 25 years old, six-figure book deal. Unfailingly repeated in every review, they tend to work as signifiers in themselves, overshadowing what matters most: the work.

The stories in Sightseeing, all told in first-person, all set in Thailand, are narrated (mostly) by young men who journey from innocence to realization in convincingly subtle ways. “At the Cafe Lovely” tells the tale of a young boy whose older brother, Anek, takes him to see a prostitute at the tender age of 11. The boy’s admiration, his desire to emulate, lead him to follow in Anek’s footsteps, even when they lead to the abandonment of their mother. In the very touching “Draft Day,” a young man and his best friend, each from disparate social classes, spend the day together, waiting to hear the results of a rigged lottery that will decide whether they are to serve in the army or can go free. The narrator’s guilt over the bribe his parents paid to get him off, and his shame at knowing that his best friend won’t get lucky is nearly palpable.

I found it refreshing that Lapcharoensap navigates what might seem to others as exotic, but doesn’t give in to the titillating detail; his work is vivid without being gratuitously colorful. At times, though, his stylistic choices seem completely odd. The dialogue between characters is rife with American slang, even if one allows for the fact that the text is a rendering in English. And his efforts at observing foreigners (“farangs”) are too one-note, too superficial to have the effect that they were probably intended to have. But when Lapcharoensap allows himself to take the time to invest in his characters, the efforts can result in stunningly beautiful work, like the novella “Cockfighter,” in which a young girl watches as her father, a once proud fighter with the best roosters in town, starts to lose everything to his gambling habit.