I love fish-out-of-water stories, so I come to the Poke Rafferty
novels by Timothy Hallinan favorably pre-disposed. That, of course,
is only a start. What keeps me reading is the mix of
Hallinan’s deep and broad literary talents, consisting of his
edgy narrative voice, his sharp-as-nails characterizations, and the
casual manner in which his plot can suddenly turn and grab the
reader by the throat. For those belonging to the dwindling ranks of
the uninitiated, Rafferty is an American expatriate who resides in
Bangkok and makes his living as a writer. It is precisely this
occupation that leads to his not-inconsiderable troubles in
Hallinan opens the book with a few short chapters that are
unforgettable. You more than likely will pause momentarily after
reading them, check on your loved ones and say a silent prayer of
thanks to whatever higher power you address for their continued
safety. The author then turns to Rafferty, who, thanks to the
machinations of his friend Arthit, is in the middle of a high
stakes poker game. One of the players is someone who should not be
there. His name is Khun Pan, a man of unimaginable wealth and power
who rose from indescribable poverty in a country where it is nearly
impossible to do so. Pan is hated and feared by the powers that be
and adored with a mythological fervor by the country poor, who
comprise the overwhelming majority of Thailand’s impoverished
population. The method by which Pan bridged the immeasurable gulf
between the haves and the have-nots in Thailand is one of the
nation’s greatest contemporary mysteries.
Rafferty understands Thailand, but not as well as he thinks; he
has no idea what he is getting into when, as the stake for a hand
of poker, he wants the opportunity to write Pan’s biography.
Rafferty wins the bet, but finds that within a few hours his life
is turned upside down. He is caught between two malevolent and
deadly forces --- one of which does not want him to write the book
under any circumstances, the other of which wants him to write the
story of Pan’s life, but with a highly unfavorable slant.
Both sides are quick to demonstrate not only their power but also
their reach, threatening Rose, Rafferty’s wife, and Miaow,
their nine-year-old daughter. Rafferty has nowhere to turn.
Arthit is sorely and sadly distracted by his wife’s
painful and debilitating illness, which is slowly but surely taking
her away. To Rose, who was born in a rural village and was working
as a bar girl when Rafferty first met her, Pan is a hero. Yet
Rafferty finds that there is more to Pan’s mysterious assent
to wealth and power than appears to meet the eye. Worse, Rafferty
is uncertain as to whether Pan is fully on board with the project.
When Pan schedules a press conference where it is all but certain
that he will make an announcement concerning his intentions to run
for public office, he sets in motion a series of events that put
Rafferty and his family in certain danger, in a country where the
rules, and one’s friends and enemies, keep changing.
Hallinan is a marvel, showing a canny and innate knowledge of
Thailand borne of a long-term residency in that country. His
descriptions of the streets, the people, and the fluid and
multi-leveled rivers of power that rule Bangkok are such that one
could almost believe that he is channeling his own experiences.
There is much to love here, not the least of which is the fateful
return of a character from a previous volume. BREATHING WATER is
arguably the best novel in the series to date, and carries with it
the promise that more of the best is yet to come.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 23, 2010